Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

I Suppose you’re wondering why you’re here today

Posted by on Sunday, December 8th, 2019 in Minister

Note: This sermon has also been posted as an audio podcast. Click on this link to listen and subscribe to the podcast: Retelling the Bible.

Hespeler, 8 December 2019 © Scott McAndless – 2nd Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I suppose you’re all wondering why you’re here today. In particular, why you are in this rather desolate and lonely place on the shores of the Jordan River. I know you have come here from busy lives. Some of you came here from Jerusalem, the city that never sleeps. And many of you came from other towns and villages in Judea and even a few of you provincials came from Galilee. You all have things to do back there. It’s the busy season. But you have left all of that behind and come to this desolate place. What’s more, you have left behind that land, the PromiIsed Land that God gave to you as a people and the particular plots of land that have been passed down in your families for generations.

A river running through a body of water

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How could you do that, abandon the land of your own ancestors? Well, isn’t it obvious? The Promised Land is no longer your land. It’s no longer the land that God gave you because it is ruled by foreigners who serve only the gods of Rome and the emperor. It is no longer Israel but Roman Judea. Therefore, you stand here on the ancient and sacred border of the Promised Land as outsiders. You are just like the children of Israel back in the days of Yeshua who came to this very spot and stood on the banks of the river and looked into the land that God had promised them, and it was not their land.

And what happened to them? You all know the story. As Yeshua stood there before the people, God went before them and the priests stepped into the water of the Jordan River carrying the sacred Ark of the Covenant and the water stopped flowing. Right there, just upstream from this this very spot, the water stood up in a heap and the bed of the river ran dry so that the people might enter into the land that God had given to them.

Maybe you didn’t realize this when you left home, but you have come here today because it is time for that to happen again. Once again, God will make a path through this river for you. Once again God will give you back the land that is promised.

Now, it will be a little bit different this time. We do not have the priests with us here, for the priests have given in to the powerful of this world and they work with the forces of darkness. The priests and the temple are lost to us today. They do nothing but pacify the people so that the Romans may rule undisturbed. So the priests are not here to carry the Ark of the Covenant into the waters and so the river will not run dry. But this will not prevent us. This time you shall pass through the waters of the Jordan and you will enter into the land as new people.

In a few minutes, John, God’s messenger, the baptizer and the voice that cries out in this wilderness place will get around to this group. He will take you into the Promised Land. But, since you must pass through the water to do so, this is what you must do. To prepare yourself for the chilly waters of the Jordan River, you must repent. That is the only way for you to enter into the land as the force that will take it back. You cannot enter as the person you have been, you must enter as the person you will become.

Now, I hear some of you asking each other, what does that mean? How do I repent? I have spoken to a lot of groups like yours, and I know how you talk. I know that sometimes you seem to think that repentance is all about how you feel. Now, granted, I understand that some of you may feel bad about how you behaved in the past. You may have disappointed yourself or others. You may not have lived up to God’s expectations of you. If you feel guilty about anything like that, or if anyone has made you to feel guilty for it, that is fine. God forgives and sets you free from your guilt.

But I’ll tell you something, John is not particularly interested in your feelings of guilt. He’s not interested in the past. He doesn’t talk about wrath in the past tense, only in the future tense. We’ve all messed up in the past. John is interested in the now and in the future and that is what repentance is about.

Repentance is about changing your mind, changing your heart and, thus, bringing about a change in your actions. Repentance is about you, yourself, being and becoming the change that is actually needed in our land. But (and here I’m going to give you guys a bit of a warning) if any of you just happen to belong to the party of the Pharisees or the party of the Sadducees, well, John really doesn’t like you guys. I mean, really. “Brood of vipers,” that’s what he called the last batch of Sadducees that came through here. And, I want to let you know, that it’s not really personal. It’s not that he doesn’t like you. It’s not even that he really has any problem with the teachings or the practices of those two groups. In theory at least, he knows that the Pharisees are committed to follow all of the various commandments of the law. He knows that the Sadducees have committed themselves to serving God in the temple.

His problem is not with any of that. His problem is that you have been so willing to put all of that aside and work with those who would exploit this land and its people for their own gain so that they might be secure and comfortable. So I am warning you Pharisees and Sadducees, when he sees you, he will not just ask you to repent. He will ask you to show fruit worthy of repentance. He will demand that you show him in your actions that you have changed your minds about what really matters.

That is why you have come here. That is why you have left behind everything that is familiar and comfortable to come to this desolate place, because the time has come for us to take this country back. And I’m warning you, John will talk about this in some pretty wild terms. He will not just say that the tree of this nation is rotten and doesn’t produce any fruit. He will say that, right now, the axe is about to strike the root of the tree and it will be cut down and thrown into fire. Oh, John loves talking about fire! Don’t get him started.

But, I’ll tell you, I’ve been listening to his spiel for a while now, and I have noticed something. John willingly admits that he’s not the one who’s going to carry all of this out. He’s just here to prepare everyone, to prepare all of you to be part of it. But someone else is going to make it happen.

So, I thought a lot about that and I think I’ve figured it out. We needed a Yeshua to take this nation the first time. To use the old Hebrew language, we needed a Joshua. That’s why I believe that John is here to prepare the way for a new Yeshua – a new Joshua, or maybe for you Greek speakers in the crowd, a new Jesus. It’s all the same name. But actually what his name is and where he comes from doesn’t matter, this is about what he’s going to do. And what he’s going to do is take the nation back for God.

Now, it’s pretty clear what John thinks that’s going to look like. It’s going to be like the first time, with fire and destruction and death. I get where he’s coming from, but I’m beginning to think that he’s not quite right about that. This new Yeshua is going to be different, I think. I actually don’t think that it really worked the first time, taking this nation by violence. The new Yeshua, I think, will not take the country by violence, but rather by love, peace and hope. But whatever it is, just understand that John is just preparing the way for what God is about to do and you are here in order to prepare to be part of it. So, into the water you go!

I suppose you’re all wondering why you’re here today. In particular, why you are in this rather desolate and lonely place that it sometimes seems the world has forgotten. I know you have come here from busy lives. Many of you have demanding jobs and schedules. I know some of you are retired, but sometimes I look at your lives and think you might be even busier than those who work. Nevertheless, you have set all of that aside to come apart to this place at this time. Why are you here?

You are here, quite simply, because it’s time to take this nation back. And you may think that I’m talking about taking the nation back from the forces of secularization, but actually I’m not. Yes, it is true that this nation is less explicitly Christian today than it has been in the past and of course that does present certain challenges to Christians living in it.

But that is actually the kind of thing that the Pharisees and Sadducees were working on. Remember them, that brood of vipers? Their problem was that they were so obsessed with the place of their religion in the culture that they missed a much more insidious danger. They allied themselves with powerful political force, not challenging the evil that it did, in order to advance their tamed version of the faith, a version that would not disturb the powers-that-be and that allowed the mad emperor to do whatever he pleased without check or balance.

No, this conquest is different. It is about confronting the truly evil forces at work in our world – the forces of greed, of power for the sake of power, of hatred and tribalism. And, for that reason, the Yeshua that we follow will not lead us in a conquest of violence and hate but of love and hope.

You are here because you have been called here to be a part of the nation that should be. You stand on the borders of that new nation, on the banks of the river, to prepare to enter. And just like those pilgrims who came to the river in the days of the Baptist, you shall enter by passing through the water. Indeed, most of you have already passed through.

So there is one thing that remains for you. You must repent. And though I know that all of us carry around regrets for our failures and shortcomings in the past, repentance does not mean merely how you feel bad about those things. And, though I promise you that God does forgive and doesn’t seek to hold against you what has gone wrong in the past, repentance is not merely about seeking forgiveness for the past. All of that is merely the prelude to repentance.

True repentance is about how you choose to be today and tomorrow and in the weeks and months to come. It’s about how you change your mind and your heart and ultimately your actions so that you begin to live according to the change you want to see in the world. That is what it meant when you were taken and dragged through the waters of the river from one side to the other. That’s what it meant when you were baptized and that is what it will mean when you are baptized.

That is it. That is what you have come here for. I know that there are some who would add other things on top of that. They would tell you that there are certain things you have to believe, certain ideas that you have to sign on to. I have no problem with any of that. But the fact of the matter is that we are never all going to agree about all of those things. Where we must agree is here on the banks of this river. We are here because the new Yeshua has come and we are part of the army that will take back this land to a place of peace, hope and joy that will be for all.

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Besides this, you know what time it is

Posted by on Sunday, December 1st, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, Dec. 1, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1, Communion
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

You brought a sleeping bag and wore your long johns and your warmest coat, but after sitting out here for many hours, you are completely chilled to the bone. How many times have you asked yourself over the last few hours, are you crazy to do this? I mean, what kind of fools put themselves through this kind of trial of their own free will? If your boss ordered you to go out and sit on a cold sidewalk from midnight until six in the morning and then fight off a bunch of other people in order to get your hands on a certain piece of merchandise, you would refuse. You would file a grievance with the union. You might even just quit right there on the spot. But here you have chosen to do that very thing of your own free will.

A group of people standing in front of a crowd

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And why do you do it? Because your life actually depends on getting that particular piece of merchandise at a low, low price? No, not really. You do it because do you know that it’s just what people do. Besides this, you know what time it is. It is Black Friday and the doors will be opening in just a few minutes and those door crasher specials are waiting for you and you have vowed that this time you will get them. It is just what people do at this moment in time.

And that is just one example of people doing strange things at this time of year just because they know what time it is. You know very well that on December 19th, just a few minutes after midnight, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of people lined up to see the biggest movie of the year, which I’m guessing will be Star Wars, the Rise of Skywalker, and they will do it simply because it matters to them to be the first to see that movie on the day that it opens. It just will not mean the same thing the next day when it’s not the right time. This time of the year is, more than any other, the time when we do things just because this is the time when we do them. “‘Tis the season,” isn’t that what we say. We gather with friends and family at this time of the year, not because it is always the most convenient time to travel (travelling can be horrible!), but because you are just supposed to do it and you will drive through the snowstorm to get there if you have to because you know what time it is. We give gifts to people, not because they are things that they need but just because this is the time when we are supposed to do it.

And, you know what, so much of that is great. I do so look forward to so many of those things that we do just because it is the right time at this time of year. And while I am not particularly interested in some of those events that take place at certain times (you will never find me crashing the door at a Black Friday sale, for example) if those things do bring joy to you during this season, by all means go ahead and make the most of them. There is great power and advantage to be gained by knowing what time it is.

But there is a question that we need to ask, maybe especially at this season of the year: what if you are wrong about what time it is? What if what the world is telling us about what time it is is wrong? That’s not my question, by the way; it is the Bible’s. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives several examples of people who thought that they knew what time it was – who believed what the world was telling them about what time it was – but who were horribly and tragically wrong. Jesus speaks of the people in the days of Noah – people who were living just before a looming disaster but just did not recognize what time they were living in. If they knew what time it was, they would have been busy building ships like Noah and his family, but instead they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”

He speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding grain at the mill when it is clearly not the time to take care of those everyday tasks but instead a time to be prepared for a looming disaster that takes one of the two in both cases. And of course, Jesus gives the example of the homeowner who thought that it was time to relax and go to bed when there was actually a thief who was casing his house and getting ready to rob it; it was a time to be vigilant and prepare to resist intruders. The point of all of these illustrations seems clear. You had better not just take for granted what the world tells you about what time it is. To get that wrong could be very dangerous, even fatal. So, the stakes are very high.

In fact, some of these passages we read this morning really seem kind of annoying at this time of year. After all, it is Christmas time. There are so many disturbing things that are going on in the world all the time, can’t we, just for this one season, forget all about that and celebrate and have a good time?

I don’t think that any of this means that we are just supposed to ignore whatever the world says about what time it is. By all means go ahead and plan your special times with family and friends. Enjoy those special times and events of the season. But Jesus would say that, even so, you ought to keep your eyes open for any indication that God is operating under a different timetable.

Jesus’ reference to the days of Noah makes me think of all of the ways in which we often deal with potential or looming disasters in our modern world. A majority of people, for example, accept these days that we are facing some serious environmental crises, but many go on with their regular activities and make their usual choices as if there really was nothing to be concerned about.

Yes, I know that there are some who will deny that there is anything at all to worry about, but it seems to me that the more common response is just to not think about it and to go on “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” as if the worrying signs all around them didn’t exist.

I believe that that is what the Genesis story of the flood is about. I think the point of the story is that the world was on a course for destruction and it was plain for anyone to see. The problem in that story wasn’t environmental destruction; it was the spread of deadly violence. But the reaction seems to have been the same.

And I know why we react that way; I do it too often enough. Sometimes you just have to act as if the terrible possibilities didn’t exist in order to get on with your life and keep from going insane. But Jesus may be warning us that there are consequences for failing to recognize what time it really is. So, yes, carry on with your life, by all means, but remember that your life does not simply stand alone. You are part of a much larger system and your actions and your activism matter. And, somewhere deep down inside, you really do know what time it is.

But I don’t mean to just talk about dire or looming threats here. I do not think that being a follower of Jesus means that we have to be people who are constantly thinking of the worst thing possible that could happen. In fact, it is mostly the opposite. Knowing what time it is in God’s timetable, also means joyfully embracing the opportunities that God places before us. What that means is that, when we are busily going on with all of the things that the world tells us that we must do, God will interrupt us.

And you all know what that is like! You have just managed to get a couple of hours out of your busy schedule to get to the mall and finally finish all that Christmas shopping, or you’re heading to the grocery store and you absolutely have to concentrate and get everything you need for the big meal this time when something just happens to break in and disturb your flow. Say it is an opportunity to help someone – someone who needs a little kindness or a little bit of help and you, all of a sudden, are in a position where you can do something.

Oh, that’s frustrating, isn’t it? Here I’ve got a million things to do and then something unexpected comes out of nowhere. It’s enough to make you cry. But if you know what time it is – if you are sensitive to God’s time – you know that those things don’t just happen by accident. They are God’s timing. And, if you see them that way, you will be able to respond with joy and your joy this season will multiply. If you don’t, they are just another annoying interruption and the frustration will multiply. That is the difference that knowing what time it really is can make.

I’m going to lay another case of God’s timing on you – another challenge. The world is telling you these days what time it is – it is a time to buy and buy and buy. It starts on Black Friday and continues on Cyber Monday and all the way to December 24 as we count down the real 24 days of Christmas as the world defines them. It’s about buying and then receiving on Christmas Day, a frenzy that will lead to many a meltdown between now and then.

But we have discerned God saying to us that it is a different time. After Black Friday a couple of days ago and Cyber Monday tomorrow, the next day will be Tuesday – Giving Tuesday. We have joined in the Giving Tuesday campaign this year because we believe that, while the world is saying that it is time to exercise purchasing power, God is saying that it is time to exercise the practice of generosity. And if you can hear what God is saying about what time it is, you will find the greater joy of this season.

I do not say this because I am afraid that St. Andrew’s is not going to be able to pay its bills. That’s not what this is about. Sure, we are behind, but it is God who will provide for the needs of this church as we remain faithful to the work God calls us to do, so I’m not asking you to give because we need it. We will be sharing with you some of the amazing things we do here at St. Andrew’s for our community and you definitely want to say after the service and join us in a celebration of those ministries, but this is not about making sure that you give to support those things.

Give prayerful thought about where God wants you to give and what God wants you to support. If it is not to St. Andrew’s, that is not an issue at all, but just don’t miss the opportunity that God is placing before you. I am calling on every single person here, on Tuesday or whatever day you can make it work for you, to give in some extraordinarily generous way as God has enabled you. I don’t want you to do it out of compulsion. I don’t want you to do it out of our need (that is in God’s supply), I don’t want you to do it grudgingly. I want you to do it joyfully because, besides you know what time it is.

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This is the king of the Jews?

Posted by on Sunday, November 24th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 24 November 2019 © Scott McAndless – Christ the King
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

“This is the king of the Jews?” The Gospel of Luke tells us that these were the words that were posted on the wood of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. And, since crucifixion was all about public display and warning others not to threaten the stability of the Roman Empire, it is plain enough why that sign was posted there. It was the charge upon which Jesus had been convicted. Pontius Pilate had sentenced him with the crime of sedition, insurrection and of threatening the sovereignty of the Roman Empire.

Jesus upon the cross

And yet I cannot help but wonder if, when Pilate ordered that those words be printed, he maybe didn’t say it like that, as a serious and solemn charge. I think that what he said was, “This is the king of the Jews?” as in, “Is this the best you can do? It this really what you call a king?” For Jesus had none of the trappings of a king. He did not wear a diadem or a royal robe. He had a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors (all of whom seemed to desert him when the going got rough) rather than royal retainers and trained bodyguards. And, though he spoke with such authority, he had absolutely no earthly power to back it up. He wasn’t a king; he was a joke, a farce, a minor annoyance at best. So did Pilate declare, or at least so he tried to convince himself.

But we know different, don’t we? We declare Jesus to be our prophet, our priest and our king. Today is the Sunday of the year devoted to his kingly power and position. But, if Jesus is king, he is a king unlike any others that we have ever seen in this world. So what does it mean, on a day like this, to claim Jesus as our king?

I find that there is a certain reluctance these days to talk about Jesus as a king. In many churches, the last Sunday before the start of Advent is not called “Christ the King Sunday” anymore, but rather “Reign of Christ Sunday.” I understand why people do that, of course. The word king is archaic; as modern people who have had no experience of an effective ruling monarch (Queen Elizabeth, after all, is explicitly banned from exercising any political power), we aren’t quite sure how to relate to the notion of a king.

But I actually think that there are some good reasons to hold on to the original language. Jesus lived, after all, for his whole life within an actual kingdom. He lived in the Kingdom of Galilee and the Peraea. (Actually it was technically a tetrarchy and its ruler, Herod Antipas, was technically a tetrarch and not a king, but that was actually something that made no practical difference to the people who lived under Herod’s rule.) That meant that every single time that Jesus used the phrase, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, and suggested (as he did all the time) that there were people living in the reality of such a kingdom, he was essentially denying the very real political reality that surrounded him. He was denying that he lived under the jurisdiction of King Herod Antipas. And if Jesus was, in any sense, a king, he was clearly a king who stood in sharp contrast to King Herod and everything that he stood for.

So actually, if you want to understand what it means to call Jesus your king and to belong to his kingdom, you have to look at the kingdom of Herod and understand it. You have to see what kind of contrast Jesus was trying to set up. For example, the kingdom of Herod was set up on one principle above all others: exploitation. Galilee contained a unique resource, the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world. Did you know that King Herod Antipas attempted to dominate the fish trade by controlling that lake?

During Jesus’ lifetime, Herod built an entirely new capital on the shores of the Sea of Galilee for the purpose of taking as much profit as he possibly could from the fishers on that lake. Fisherman like Peter, James and John followed Jesus because, when he spoke about an alternate kingdom, the kingdom of God, he challenged the authority of the kingdom of Herod that had been bleeding them and their families dry.

When Jesus fed the multitude in the wilderness by giving to the people of Galilee the bread and the fish of Galilee, he was doing it in direct defiance of King Herod who claimed all of the bread and fish of Galilee for himself and his buddies so that they could get even richer.

Jesus’ claim to be a king was not made in a vacuum, it was not something that only applied to spiritual things or to heavenly realities and it was not just about getting people to heaven when they died. It may have been all of these things, but it was also much more – it was the intentional opposite of Herod Antipas and everything that he stood for. What’s more, Jesus’ own contemporaries – both his disciples and his enemies – knew that that was exactly what it meant to call Jesus a king. It was clear to them.

It is going to take a little bit more work for us to sort out today what it means to call Jesus our king. It is not immediately clear what the kingship of Jesus stands in contrast to. But consider this description from the letter to the Colossians: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Having Jesus as your king, belonging to his kingdom, means, according to this, being rescued and being transferred. In Jesus’ lifetime, that meant being rescued from Herod and the darkness of his plans, and transferred into the different reality of the kingdom that Jesus preached. Today we might understand that as being rescued from all the ways of this present world and the ways that they tend to darkness and being transferred to an alternate reality.

Think, for example, of the ways in which modern society drives people into relentless consumption. It’s a message that we are constantly surrounded with. If you have a problem, you need to buy something that will save you from that problem. If you are overweight and out of shape, for example, you need to buy yourself a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. And so people go out and do that, and then what happens? They don’t follow through. They never actually go to the gym and the exercise equipment gets stored in the attic until eventually it gets put in a yard sale. But that doesn’t matter, you see, because we have been convinced that the way you solve your problems is by buying something. The purchase is enough to save you.

And that’s true in many other ways. When people feel a spiritual lack in their life these days, what do they do? They go out and buy something. That’s one reason, for example, why the Bible remains one of the best-selling books in the world. They are constantly putting out new editions of the Bible because they know that people will buy them seeking to fill that spiritual hole. But, while the Bible is still the best-selling book in the world, it’s also one of the least read. People seem to assume that just purchasing one is enough to spark that spiritual revolution they know they need. But actually reading the book, or continuing to read it when the going gets tough, that’s where people drop out.

This is the philosophy of our society. And the relentless consumerism continues until what do we see? We see people buying and buying and buying until they can’t pay their bills and they go into debt. And does it solve anything? Usually not. But that doesn’t matter because the message we get back is that the next thing you buy is going to solve everything and so you just keep going. That’s one example of the darkness of our present age. Acknowledging Jesus as your king means that you get rescued from that relentless cycle and transferred to a different reality, the reality where you recognize that material goods are never going to fill that void that is within you. Are you willing to take Jesus as your king if that is what it means?

That is but one example of the darkness of our present age. Consider the extreme competitiveness of our time. People seem to be locked into a relentless battle to be seen as better than the people who surround them. In our capitalist society that is most often achieved through financial means; if you can manage to be paid more or to own more than your neighbours, you can see yourself as a winner. In some other arenas, money is not what is used to keep score. Sometimes it’s other signs of privilege or standing. But whatever it is, the competition and our modern world is relentless. People fall into depression and despair because they simply cannot keep up. This is a darkness of our present time. It drives things like inequality and poverty as some people inevitably get to claim much more of the resources of this world, even what they don’t actually need, to the detriment of others. And, in such a world, to take Jesus as your king means that you are rescued from needing that relentless competition to find your self-worth. It means being transferred into a kingdom where your ultimate worth is not based on how much you’re paid or what title you have but on the love that you receive from God and the love that you give.

But perhaps the greatest element of the darkness of our present age is found in the relentless desire to punish and seek revenge. How many wars are fought, how many people are vilified or ostracized because they belong to a people who, for whatever reason, somebody else has decided is the enemy. The ways that we hold on to past hurts and the wrongs that are committed against us are slowly tearing this world apart and yet we cannot let go of it because this enmity has become a part of who we are. This is the darkness of the kingdom of this present world.

But when you acknowledge Jesus as your king, you are rescued from that world and you are transferred to the kingdom of a king who had the greatest indignities committed against him, the greatest pain inflicted upon him and yet hung there and said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” His kingdom, the kingdom of the one “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” is a kingdom where we learn the power of forgiveness.

That does not mean, of course, that we continually have to let the people who have wronged us off from the consequences of their sins or their crimes, but it does mean that we are set free from that relentless need to take vengeance in order to feel good about ourselves. That need is a part of the darkness of this world and you have been rescued from that and transferred to the kingdom of the king of forgiveness.

That is the king that we serve. That is what it means to call Christ our King. And I fully realize that other people will look at that and incredulously say, “you call that a king?” The world won’t understand. The world is trapped in darkness. We belong to a different Kingdom because we have a different kind of king and his rule will last forever and ever, amen.

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Of Vineyards and Welfare Queens

Posted by on Sunday, November 17th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 17 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

In 1974, news and magazine stories began to appear about a woman named Linda Taylor in the United States. She was, apparently, quite a phenomenon. She didn’t work and collected welfare. In fact, it seemed, she collected a lot of welfare. If fact, she was eventually convicted of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases and was sentenced to prison. It was in these articles that a special name was coined for her and people like her, a welfare queen.

A person standing in front of a fruit

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A few years later, in his campaign to become president of the United States, Ronald Reagan took that term, welfare queen, and kind of ran with it. At his campaign rallies and speeches, the welfare queen became a regular feature. Linda Taylor was not just one person, in fact, he never mentioned her by name. She was but one example of many. Welfare queens were apparently everywhere, they were bleeding America dry and they were at the heart of everything that was wrong with America. Reagan never actually offered any proof or statistics about any of this, he just confidently proclaimed it and you had to believe it; he was so sincere. People certainly did believe him.

And thus, after coming to office, Reagan had a mandate to carry out welfare reform – something that quickly caught on and spread to many other places including Canada. The idea behind it was that welfare was not only a drain on public funds, it also actually harmed the poor people that it was supposed to help. It encouraged them to be lazy, to give up control over their own lives and led them into the fraud and crime represented by the welfare queen. The solution, therefore, was to stop giving welfare to people, at least not without requirements – especially the requirement that they had to work. This was not presented as something mean-hearted or cruel, but actually a kind of tough love, a way of doing what was best for people even though they might not like it.

At that time, and often afterwards, the scripture that was used by Christian supporters of these initiatives was the one that we read this morning from the Second Letter of Thessalonians. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” I am not sure, of course, that when Paul wrote those words what he had in mind was everything that happened with welfare reform. I do rather suspect that he was speaking pretty specifically to particular problems that were happening in that church in Thessalonica and not necessarily putting forward general principles. And I am not entirely sure that welfare reform has been an unmitigated success over the last few decades, but I do agree that there is some wisdom in this general idea. Setting aside particular circumstances, of course, I do think that people have a natural need to contribute to their own sustenance and well-being, to do so is to fulfill what you are called to be as a human being.

And yet, at the same time, I believe that the Bible would invite us to look a little bit deeper when we are thinking of problems like poverty and people being unable to eat. I am particularly drawn to our reading this morning from the Prophet Isaiah. It is a famous passage in which the prophet lays out his vision of the world as it will be someday. It is a vision of peace and hope for all peoples. So peaceful is this world that the prophet describes that The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” In other words, the peacefulness of the human world will overflow into the natural world until even predator and prey can dwell alongside each other.

But there is another element in this vision of a world perfected that may be even more important. Isaiah goes on to say: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat… and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.”

Think about that for a few moments. Think about the contrast between that and the “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” that we find in Second Thessalonians and in the world of welfare reform. When the prophet comes to imagine the perfect world, he doesn’t imagine a world where people don’t have to work. In fact, the people in this vision seem to be working very hard – building houses, planting vineyards and generally toiling all day long. The difference in this vision is that the people are working for themselves. It is their house, their vineyard and the work of their hands that they themselves are enjoying.

They are intimately connected to the work that they do and the outcome of their labour. There is no question that they will work. If they do not work, their vineyard or their field will not produce. Nobody has to tell them that those who do not work do not eat. If work has meaning and people are able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, you’re not going to see too many problems with people shirking work that just needs to be done.

So that is the ideal vision of the world as it is supposed to be that you find, not just in this passage in Isaiah but in many places in the Old Testament. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that that is how God designed us to live, with a close connection between the work that we do and the resulting production that provides for us life and sustenance. Under those conditions, I’m not saying that everything was perfect, but at least the connection between labour and being able to eat was not something that anybody could miss.

But then guess what happened, the world changed. It had already changed quite significantly by the time that Paul was writing his letters to the Thessalonians. The growth of slavery and the large-scale movement of people from the countryside into cities like Thessalonica, meant that entire generations of people had lived without ever seeing how their work produced anything of value to themselves.

Other people had seized control of things, like the land, that were able to produce what people needed and they only worked for those demanding masters, employers and patrons. Is it any wonder that there were some people in the church in Thessalonica who got carried away with the new freedom that they found in Christ and decided not to do any work because they didn’t have anyone forcing them to work? They had lost that connection and could no longer see how their failure to contribute impacted the whole community.

And if they struggled with the effects of that loss of connection, how much more has that become a problem for us in the modern world? We live in a society today where most people have become completely unaware of where the things that sustain them come from. Pork chops on styrofoam trays just appear on grocery shelves, fruit comes in rolls by the foot and who has a clue what Rice Crispies are made of? And the labour of very few is connected in any meaningful way to the production that sustains their lives. For the most part, we work to serve the profits of companies and corporations. We may live in fear that, if we don’t work or we can’t get a job, we won’t eat, but we no longer have a clear sense of how it is all connected.

Part of this, of course, just has to do with the complexities of modern life and modern economics. You do almost need a degree in economics these days to map out the chains of production and consumption, supply and demand. But it also does have something to do with how we have chosen to distribute the ownership of those things, like wealth and land and resources, that are the things that are able to provide to human beings what they need to survive. When these things are increasingly controlled by an elite few, you are bound to have problems as people fall into apathy, idleness and poverty.

This also has to do with what we truly value because everything in our economy seems to be screaming these days that we don’t really value work. Those who contribute their capital, their investment and their ownership generally expect to receive a much higher rate of return these days than those who merely contribute their labour. What is more, labourers are often seen as expendable – the first to get cut when there is any danger that profits will fall.

Now, before you all start to think that I am going to go off and start quoting from the Communist Manifesto here, let me say that I am not an idealist when it comes to economic systems. I know that we live in a capitalist society and I am okay with that. I don’t think capitalism is perfect – it certainly has some pitfalls – but I am not inclined to overturn it, though I’d like to see it work better for everyone. I’m not preaching economic systems here, I am just preaching what the Bible preaches, and that is economic justice.

Prophets like Isaiah really did dream of a world where every family lived under their own vine and their own fig tree, where they had the means to produce what they needed to live with their own hands and the work that they did all had meaning as a result. I know that we no longer live in a world where that is possible, but I still believe that we can be informed by that biblical vision and it can have an impact on how we deal with people today.

One thing I know is this: it doesn’t help when we simply treat people as categories and problems. In my work, I have often had time to deal with people who are unemployed or underemployed and don’t earn enough to live on. I know that it doesn’t help to categorize them as welfare queens or even as problems. I have known people who don’t work for various reasons, but few have been what I would call lazy. They may have issues that have not been resolved or injuries of mind or of body that are unhealed. They may have never been taught or given what they needed to be able to work and they may have missed out on certain opportunities, but they aren’t simply lazy, and I don’t really see what it helps anything to treat them as such.

People are not categories, they are people. They need to be treated as people. And if you take the time to get to know them and really listen to them (which may take a lot of time because they have often built up barriers around themselves) they may just let you in and you will see.

That is honestly one of the things that I really appreciate about the outreach ministries that we have here at St. Andrew’s. I know that we do give a whole lot of people free meals, extremely subsidised food to take home through the food bank and free clothing through Hope Clothing. But honestly, I do not think that these things are the most important services that we provide for people who live on the economic margins. We offer them a place and a context where they are treated as individuals. We sit beside them as they eat their meals, we enjoy their company as they select their food or clothing. We actually take the time to get to know them and their struggles and trials. I’m not saying that doing that will suddenly fix all of the problems in somebody’s life or enable them to make the jump to an excellent job tomorrow, but I am saying that it is in those kinds of personal connections that healing begins.

The problem is not that our welfare systems were too generous. Yes, there probably was some need of reform and improvements, but it is not true at all that welfare is a driver of poverty. The problem, you see, went much deeper than that. The problem was disconnection – disconnection from the land, disconnection from the means of production. We are not going to fix all of that simply by cutting people off even more from compassion and care, the solution and the hope is to be found in connection and that is something that we can all be part of.

You, simply by choosing to treat an unemployed or marginalized person as a person – by caring about them and their story – are part of the hope and the healing, part of the vision of God for what this world could truly be.

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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Posted by on Sunday, November 10th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 10 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

I have a disturbing question for you here this morning. What if the Sadducees – the people in this morning’s reading from the gospel – what if they are right? No, I’m serious, they come up to Jesus because they don’t believe in the resurrection and they, just like all of the people you talk to on Facebook and Twitter these days, want to prove that they are right and Jesus is wrong.

And don’t get thrown off by the convoluted argument that they use. It seems rather silly – in fact it is kind of intentionally silly. They invoke a law that really doesn’t make sense to us. You see, in ancient biblical times it was seen as the duty of every Jewish man to have a son. This was because they believed that God had given the land of Israel very specifically to the families of Israel. That meant that every family had to produce an heir (a male heir because that was how that society worked) in every generation who would own a plot of land.

But, as we all know, things don’t always work out perfectly that way. Sometimes a man will die before he has sons. That’s just the reality of life in the real world. So, the Old Testament came up with the plan to fix that problem. It is a bizarre plan from our point of view, but apparently it worked for them. The dead man’s brother would take his widow and have a son with her, and this son would be the heir of the dead man.

Like I say, pretty weird, but it kind of made sense in their world. So anyways, these Sadducees come up with a somewhat ridiculous scenario in which an entire family of seven brothers dies one after the other after being married to the same woman one after another. Their argument is that there can be no resurrection simply because, in that society a woman was defined absolutely by her relationships, particularly her relationship with her husband. They think that there can be no resurrection because it will be unclear basically who she belongs to in the next life. You can’t have that!

So, we have lots of reasons to simply dismiss what they are saying. Their question is misogynistic, in that they assume that a woman has no identity apart from her husband, and it is based on an archaic law that makes no sense to us. But I’m not so sure that we should just dismiss what they’re saying. There is a kernel of truth in it.

Let me ask you this, who are you apart from your relationships? You are somebody, of course. You do have your own independent identity. But in many ways that identity has been shaped and formed by your relationships. You are who you are because of who your parents were and what they shared with you and put in you. You are also somebody’s sibling, somebody’s friend, maybe somebody’s mother or father. And, of course, there are particular relationships, like your relationship with your spouse, that have contributed much more than all the rest.

All of these relationships affect you, change you. Therefore, there is not just one you in this life but rather one long progression of yous as you grow and change throughout your life. So, who will you be in the afterlife? The person you were in the prime of life? What would it mean to be reunited in the afterlife, say, with your grandmother who may have known you and loved you when you were a child but who knows nothing about the person you have since become?

We remember today and tomorrow in particular those who served in wars and conflicts and in other very dangerous situations – giving special thought for those who went to serve and did not return, many of whom lie in graves far from home. We think with fondness of being reunited with them some day.

But, at the same time, you have to ask about what that reunion is supposed to look like. They say, you know, that the relationships that are formed in combat situations are unlike most any others. Men and women under fire together will form iron bonds with each other that will never fail.

In fact, so powerful are these relationships that it is said that, when it comes right down to it, they are what enable people to fight in impossible situations. In the heat of combat, soldiers won’t necessarily put their lives on the line for abstract notions of patriotism or nationalism, but they will not hesitate to do so for their friends who stand on the right and on the left of them. The bonds formed in combat have, without doubt, changed the course of many a battle.

And of course, when you speak of such meaningful relationships, it is only natural for those who stood together under fire to want to be reunited with one another. But do you remember the words that we often repeat at this time of year: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” That is what we say of those who did not come back from war. So, say that you have one comrade who is killed in World War II in Europe, dead and buried at, say 20, years of age. He doesn’t return and he doesn’t get to grow old. But his friends do. They return home, they marry and have children and have many things happen in their lives that change them and affect them profoundly. And then they die at 60, 70, 80 or more years of age.

They can be reunited in the afterlife, that’s what we believe, isn’t it? But what sort of reunion would it be between a 20 year old and an 80 year old who were once so close but who have now been so separated by life experience – one frozen in time while the other has changed profoundly? It is questions like that that make the afterlife so hard to conceive of. If I am to be raised after death, what person will be raised, the person that I was, the person that I am or the person that I will be one day. As a resurrected person, how will I then relate to those I have known before?

Well that is the issue that the Sadducees are actually raising with Jesus with their question, and it’s a pretty good one. But, fear not, for Jesus is not going to leave us hanging with this one. Jesus actually has an answer to the difficult question posed by Sadducees. Actually, there are two answers. First of all, Jesus says this: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Now what is Jesus saying here? He is not saying that there is no reunion with people that we love in the afterlife. What he is saying is that the relationships that we seek to re-establish in the afterlife just don’t work the way there that they do here. In other words, you may think that you know how it’s going to work and how we’re going to relate in the afterlife, but you are wrong. You have no idea.

And that is actually the biggest issue that we have in all our talk of a life after death: we don’t have a clue what it’s like. This is simply because we don’t have the minds to comprehend it, nor do we have the language to describe it. Everything that the Bible says, everything that anyone has ever said of the afterlife, is not and cannot be an exact description. At best, what we have are similes and metaphors. We cannot say what heaven is, we can only say that it’s kind of like this or kind of like that. But just because we cannot precisely describe it, that does not mean that it is not real. Just because we do not know how we will relate to one another after we are raised, does not mean that we will not be raised.

So, these words of Jesus are ultimately very helpful, but they might still leave us with some questions. If we can’t offer a precise definition of the afterlife, after all, doesn’t that make it a bit hard to take comfort in the very idea of an afterlife? And if we can’t precisely define the relationships that we’ll have with those who have gone on before, how can we be sure that there will be comfort in being reunited?

But, as I said, Jesus also has a second response to their question. He talks about that famous scene when God met Moses at the burning bush and said that he was “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now, of course, by the time Moses came along, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been dead and buried for a very long time. Nevertheless, Jesus notes, God spoke of being their God in the present tense, not in the past. That is like if I were to say, I am the brother of Robert. When I use the present tense, it implies that my brother Robert is still alive (which indeed he is). So, Jesus is saying that God was saying the same thing about the patriarchs long after their deaths, that they were still alive. Therefore, the conclusion is, there must be an afterlife.

So, Jesus’ argument does make some good, logical sense. But I think the Jesus is doing more here then just offering a logical argument to counter that of the Sadducees. Honestly, I would be disappointed if that was all he was saying because who wants to build your argument for the reality of life after death on something as minor as the tense of one verb in one thing that God once said.

But no, Jesus is not saying that it’s just about the tense of the verb. He is saying that it’s actually about the nature of God. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” You see, the true promise of the resurrection is not found in which of seven husbands a certain woman was married to and what happens to that relationship after she dies, it is found in her God. Her relationships might change; she might change with time and experience, but God remains the same and to God she is always alive.

And God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the God of the soldier who was killed in action and left in some graveyard on Vimy Ridge and he remains alive to God. The same God is the God of the soldier who stood in the line beside that other soldier but came home and married and grew old and had a whole lifetime. Their reunion is possible because both are equally alive to God.

I get to preach at a lot of funerals – I find it to be a great honour – and so I am often very attuned to the things that make people feel a bit better at such times. And I know that people do talk a lot about that idea of being reunited someday. I know that promise is real, but Jesus is right, we really can’t imagine what that future life is going to be like. It is far beyond our imagination and understanding. So how do I know that it is true? I know it because the same God who is there for us with each breath, giving us life and hope and meaning, is the God who will always be there for us. To God we are all alive, now and always and that it what provides for us the foundation of hope beyond this present existence. That is enough. That is everything.

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Warning: Your sons and your daughters will prophesy

Posted by on Monday, October 28th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 27 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Did you know that locusts and grasshoppers are actually the same animal? Most grasshoppers live their whole lives without bothering anyone. But something very strange happens in their tiny little brains under some very particular conditions.

When there has been a bad drought, a serious lack of rain, and everything that has been planted begins to wither and die and then there is a break and the rains, long hoped for, finally begin to fall and there is a sudden and abundant new growth of greenery, in that very scenario, its like a switch is flipped inside some species of grasshopper and they become locusts. Nothing physically changes in the insect, but it is completely transformed in its behaviour. It breeds like crazy and begins to swarm and migrate in huge numbers. Locust swarms can grow so big and thick that they completely block out the sun bringing darkness in the middle of the day. That alone is terrifying, but its nothing like destruction that is wrought as these swarms devour absolutely everything that is green in their paths.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that from ancient times, people have had a tendency to blame the formation of locust swarms on the gods? Their arrival just seemed to be so mean and vindictive. You had just lived through a terrible drought, had watched everything that you had planted dry and wither away and then, when things looked the very worst, the rains had come and your heart swelled with joy as you watched everything turn green again and begin to sprout. And then, just when you began to dare to hope again, you see the sky turn black with locusts and watch as every living thing that grows is picked clean. Who wouldn’t, at that point, come to the conclusion that the entire universe (or at least some vindictive god) was out to get you?

Warning: Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy

So I understand why ancient people blamed God for locust swarms (even if I don’t agree that God operates like that). I understand because I understand how it feels to go through a very dry time, find a new reason to hope that things might get better and then have that little wisp of hope crushed. I’ve been through times like that and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had too. If you haven’t, I’ll bet you have a friend or loved one who has. And what do you say to someone who is feeling like that – who is convinced that God must be out to get them? Because I’ll tell you that the usual platitudes – “You’ll see, everything will work out,” “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Just look on the bright side,” – platitudes like that are just not going to cut it.

Well, guess who got the very difficult job of comforting and giving hope to the people of Israel who were feeling exactly like that in the aftermath of a locust swarm: a prophet named Joel. We read a part of his message this morning. How does he try to help the people? First of all, he teaches them that they should find comfort not in promises or optimism but in the very nature of God: I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,” God says, “the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.”

This is a pledge, a promise, grounded in Godself. “I will repay you,” God is saying, “everything that you have lost is on my account.” It is like the richest person in the world undertook to pay off all of your business losses or your debts. And I think that that is a message you do need to hear at that moment. When, rightly or wrongly, you have become convinced, because of the things that have been happening to you, that God is out to get you, the first thing you need is a corrected view of God. You need to understand that the creator of the universe actually seeks your good and not your harm.

I honestly feel as if this is one of the greatest battles that we face. Many people’s problems, their low self-esteem, their struggles with feelings of guilt or shame, their sense that they are never good enough, are rooted in the false image of God that people have given to them. If the image of God that was given to you by your parents or that was perhaps modelled by them was an image of a mean, judgmental and vindictive God, concluding that there must be something wrong with you simply make good sense.

And the only way that that attitude is going to shift is if you begin to see God in a different way. Joel begins to nudge the people towards that new way of seeing God with this pledge and promise, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

So that is Joel’s first response to everything that the people are dealing with – he begins to instruct them on who God actually is. But he is not done. Obviously, the people are going to need something more in order to recover from the emotional and physical blow that the locusts have dealt them. And so Joel gives them another remarkable but somewhat unexpected promise. Then afterwards,” God promises – after you have recovered from this terrible devastation – “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And that seems like a great promise. Just like God has poured out the rain that has brought the new growth, he is going to pour out his Spirit on all of his people. He is going to guide them directly and show them how to live with the ups and downs of life. But if you know anything about the history of prophecy and the movements of the Spirit, you will know that there might be something there to be a little bit concerned about. When God speaks; when the Spirit of God moves powerfully in individuals, it does tend to upset things.

From very early on, the church became very nervous about the movement of the Holy Spirit among the members of the church. It tended to be very disruptive. The Spirit often said things that the leadership didn’t really want to hear. And so, some Christian churches decided to shut that kind of thing down. Reformed churches like our own, for example, taught that the Holy Spirit basically stopped speaking to people once the scriptures had all been written. Other churches, like for example the Roman Catholic, were okay with the idea that the Spirit still spoke, but declared that the Spirit only spoke to those who were already established as leaders of the church.

So in difficult times, like in the aftermath of a locust swarm, the tendency is to clamp down, get everything back to normal as quickly as possible. What you don’t want is some new message from God that is going to shake things up and so if anyone is going to receive a message from the Spirit, you would rather that it be someone who isn’t going to shake up the status quo. You want the Spirit to speak only to established people, the elders, the old people who will be slow to embrace change when they receive a message from God’s Spirit.

Isn’t it rather interesting, therefore, that Joel promises the very opposite in his prophecy? The Spirit, he says, will be poured out all willy-nilly. It will be poured on the old but also on the young. It will be poured out on the sons but also on the daughters. Most shocking of all, Joel proclaims that God’s Spirit will be given even to the slaves, even to those who are least interested in keeping things the way they have always been.

There seems no doubt in what Joel is saying. After the locust swarm has passed, we will be not just going back to the way things used to be. We are meant to be inspired by God to seek out new directions, new messages and new beginnings and we are especially called to listen to what God might be saying through the youth and through those who have traditionally been cut off from power and influence.

I believe that in the church today, we are in a kind of post locust swarm situation. The church has been shocked in recent years to find itself in a world where the old assumptions and the old ways of doing things just don’t work the way that they once did. It used to be that we could just plant a few seeds, open the doors and expect near instant growth to occur. The last few decades, therefore, have felt a bit like the aftermath of a locust swarm for many churches. That’s why I think that Joel’s message is very relevant to us today.

We need to be reminded, first of all, that the image we have received of God in many cases – the image of a mean, vindictive God who is out to get us if we just step just a little bit out of line – is false and dangerous. But it also means that we need to be open to the second response that Joel offers: the promise of a new pouring out of God’s Spirit on God’s people.

A couple of weeks ago I used this passage from Joel to begin our session meeting. It was an unusual start to our regular meeting because we had invited our new youth group to join us during that time. So I pointed out to the youth group that the session is made up of a group of people called elders. And what is the meaning of the word elder? The word literally means old person. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of our elders here at St. Andrews are senior citizens. But it does mean, to a certain extent, that the members of session have been chosen and elected to be careful and small c conservative leaders of the congregation – people who won’t mess with the status quo too much. And Joel speaks of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the elders as they are called to lead God’s people. But, I pointed out, as much as we need the leadership of the elders, they cannot do it alone. God’s Spirit is also poured out upon the youth, Joel says, because they also are anointed to lead us especially at difficult moments when it feels like we’re in the aftermath of a locust swarm and God is urging us to find new ways to be relevant in a world where many things have changed.

That is why I’m so excited today to be celebrating the sacrament of baptism for Lily. Today we welcomed her into the life of this congregation. We heard the promises, made by her parents, that they will tell her about Jesus and give her the opportunity to experience the life of Christ’s Church as she grows up. That is something that is wonderful and that we can all look forward to. But I look forward to even more. We called down the presence of God’s Holy Spirit among us today, symbolically represented in this water. Just as the water was poured out on her head, I know that if only we leave open the possibility, God will pour out his Spirit upon her. That’s why she has been anointed as our leader today. She will lead us out into the world at the end of the service today.

Lily will grow up in a world that we can only imagine at this point. Who knows what changes are coming our way? Who knows how the environment, society and even Canada’s political system will change in years to come? Who knows how the church will need to change? We need new voices to guide us into that future, and God has chosen one such voice today. I know that you will cherish her and her presence in this congregation in years to come. That’s great. The bigger challenge that God lays before you today is will you listen to her and others like her in years to come when the Holy Spirit speaks to them and tells us what incredible new thing God wants to do among us and through us.

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An Origin Story

Posted by on Sunday, October 20th, 2019 in Minister

Hespeler, 20 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

The story we read this morning from the Book of Genesis has got it all: weirdness, strange unexplained details and a midnight wrestling match. But the really amazing thing about this story is that it’s not just a story about what happened to one man a long, long time ago. It’s actually the story of a nation and how it found its identity. It’s the story about how the people of Israel got their name. And their name tells you a whole lot about who they are as a people, and especially how they relate to their God.

You’ve got to pay attention to stories like that. They tell you a whole lot more about the true nature of a people than all of the laws, rules and policies that get written down and are given much more attention. A good story, especially a founding story like this one in Genesis, can sometimes tell you everything.

And, to show you what I mean, I got somebody else to tell you that kind of story about this congregation. Jack Krueger is a long-time member and sustaining elder of St. Andrews Hespeler Presbyterian Church. His current state of health means is unable to join us here, but he is no less a part of this congregation today than he ever was. And if you know Jack, and a lot of people around Hespeler know Jack, you know that he’s a storyteller. Over the years he’s told me many stories about this congregation. Some of them, I wouldn’t repeat here, and he wouldn’t want me to. But some of them have really taught me a lot about this congregation and so the other week I got him to tell one of them for you. I’m going to share his story with you now.

An origin story

There are a couple of things you need to know to properly understand Jack’s story. First of all, you need to know that when this sanctuary was built over a century ago, it had a particular high church design, especially up here in the chancel area. The choir pews did not face the congregation as they do now, but rather faced each other with rows of pews in front of the organ pipes on each side. And that space, on the far side of the choir, the space that we don’t really use anymore and that you may have wondered why it was even there, that was where the communion table sat. That was how the sanctuary was designed and how it remained until the time when Jack’s story begins.

In addition, you need to know a few of the characters that Jack mentions in his story. When he says Wallace, he is talking about the man that most knew as the Rev. Wally Little, long-time minister of this congregation. The Jack that he refers to is Jack Wehner, who was music director for many years. And when he mentions “the Mill,” he’s talking about a group of people associated with one of the biggest employers in the town – prosperous people who were big financial supporters of the congregation for many years, and who clearly had some strong ideas about what could be changed in the sanctuary and what could most certainly not. Here is Jack’s story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMgS2Fn8-5s

If you have any trouble playing the video within this post, follow this link to play it on Youtube: https://youtu.be/pMgS2Fn8-5s

The Bible says that the identity of the Israelites was born in a midnight wrestling match. Jacob is about as close as we get to the literal father of the nation of Israel – the actual father of twelve men who will, in their turn, found the twelve tribes that will make up the entire nation. And in this story he gets a new name, the name that the nation will bear: Israel.

And if we all spoke Hebrew, the original language of the text, we would immediately understand the meaning of the name because, in Hebrew, the name sounds like God-wrestler, the one who fights with God. That makes perfect sense in the story, of course, what better nickname could you give to someone who just spent the entire night grappling with a divine being? But this story is not just about who Jacob is, it is also about who his descendants will be. They will be a people who will be defined by their struggle with God and the midnight wrestling match foreshadows many of the ways in which the nation will struggle with their God throughout their history.

For example, one of the reasons why Jacob is fighting with God is in order to know who he is. “Please tell me your name,” Jacob pleads, though God doesn’t answer. This represents the oldest human struggle of all, the struggle to come to terms with who God is. And it is indeed something that we still struggle with today and that we will never fully resolve.

Even more important, Jacob struggles with God for a blessing. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he declares. Jacob is not seeking this blessing merely for himself but for his descendants who are about to meet with Esau, Jacob’s brother, who has vowed to destroy them all. This struggle for a blessing for our descendants is one of the key aspects of the ongoing human struggle with God.

Jacob’s wrestling match with God is an indication that human-divine relationships are not easy. They are a struggle and they sometimes leave deep marks on us, just as Jacob is left with a limp because of his wounded hip. But the blessing that Jacob receives is an indication that the struggle is nevertheless worthwhile. So, you see, these kinds of foundation stories really do tell us a lot about the identity of a people and how they operate.

Which brings me to Jack’s story about this congregation. I think that is a great founding story for us as a people. Even though many here did not live through that story, I believe that it continues to help define who we are as a congregation. And I’m sure you noticed that Jack told it as the story of a fight. To use his own words, he saw himself as wielding a knife and flaying his enemies alive! Now, granted, Jack was a butcher so I guess that’s a kind of imagery that comes to him naturally. He obviously didn’t mean to literally describe a knife fight. But he was definitely talking about a kind of conflict where everyone picked sides and there were clear winners and clear losers. And I see in that a pretty good model for how this congregation tends to deal with change.

The change they were struggling with in Jack’s story, basically the movement of the communion table closer to the people of the church, was an inevitable one. There was a time when the old high church setup really worked for people, maybe conveyed a certain seriousness, but that time was passing when Jack’s story began. Change was needed to keep the church relevant in a changing world. The only issue was how was the church going to deal with that change. And, apparently, they did it by choosing sides and having a knife fight if I understood correctly.

I think that that story is as much a part of our identity as a congregation as the story of Jacob is about the identity of the people of Israel. They were a people who dealt with change by struggling with God, we are a people who struggle with each other. I’m not saying that we constantly fight with each other. We actually get along great and work well together most of the time. It’s just that when we have to process serious change, we tend to do it by fighting it out. We don’t do that because we like it or because we don’t like each other. We just do it because we don’t know any other way to deal with change.

We don’t plan it, different people take different roles and play different parts at different times in the conflict, it just kind of happens. It’s part of who we are. And yes, that way of handling change has brought us some blessings, just like Jacob’s battle brought a blessing. But it has also sometimes left us wounded and limping. So, yes, pay attention to the stories that we tell; they are an essential part of who we are. It may surprise you to learn, however, that that is not the only way that churches can deal with change. There actually are other ways!

Jesus was a storyteller too, as you know. And perhaps one of his stories could help us think a bit more creatively about dealing with change. He told a story about a widow who got into a fight with a judge. She wanted something from him, some justice, and he didn’t want to give it to her so she had to fight him. And the battle between the two might be more violent than it seems when you first read this. The usual interpretation of this story is that the widow just wears the judge down with her persistence and insistence until the judge says, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” What you need to know is that the judge’s words can also be translated as “I will grant her justice, so that she doesn’t end up slapping me in the face!” So that widow might have been a bit scrappier than you’ve been led to believe!

Jesus seems to have told this story to illustrate how people related to God in prayer and in other ways and the underlying assumption seems to be that you have to fight with God to get anything from him. It’s just like the Jacob story – Jacob had to fight with God to get a blessing, the widow has to fight with God to get justice. Jesus is saying that that’s how we think it works. But then he goes on to say that God actually isn’t like the judge at all. In other words, we may assume that we need to fight with God to get the blessing but God would rather just give it. Maybe Jacob’s wrestling match and Israel’s ongoing struggle with God is not about who God actually is, but is rather caused by our failure to understand God at all.

Which leads me to wonder, have we in this congregation learned to deal with change by picking sides and fighting it out until somebody wins and somebody loses because we too have failed to understand the true nature of God? The idea that, in order for one person to win, somebody else has to lose, is actually based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the church and of God. It is a way of behaving that humans have always adopted when resources are scarce. But we do not have a God of scarcity; we have a God of abundance. Change is inevitable as we move forward, my hope and prayer is that we deal with it in the best ways possible. There really is no need for there to be winners and losers. The more we know God, the more we can create a church where everyone is heard, everyone’s respected and we actually all win together.

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Grateful

Posted by on Monday, October 14th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 13 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Thanksgiving
Jeremiah 29:1-7, Psalm 66, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19
I
n 2016, a young man named Colin Kaepernick, who had, up until that point, enjoyed a fantastic career in the American National Football League, made a fateful choice. Having led his team, the 49rs, to contend in one Superbowl, he was (even if his playing in subsequent seasons hadn’t taken them quite so far) on the top of his game and he could have continued to look forward to a strong and very prosperous career.
      But Colin, an African American, was very upset and moved by some of the systematic problems faced by those who looked like him – the higher incarceration rates of black offenders who broke the law at the same rate as people of other races and a rash of incidents in which unarmed black men had faced unjustifiable and often deadly violence at the hands of police. Kaepernick’s life was good and he enjoyed many privileges but he felt that he had to make some public statement about the injustices that many black Americans had to deal with every day. And so, during the 2016 season, Kaepernick began, rather famously, to exercise his own personal, silent protest. He began to kneel during the playing of the American national anthem before NFL games.

      As you probably know, that protest didn’t stay silent for very long. Soon not just football fans but everyone was talking about Kaepernick and his campaign. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. People accused him of disrespecting the American flag and anthem and those who have served in the armed forces despite the fact that he never spoke against such things. Some people seemed to intentionally misunderstand and misrepresent his protest. Others merely complained that, while he was legitimately concerned, he was not expressing it in the right way or at the right time. You’ve probably heard all of those things before and I don’t bring up the case of Colin Kaepernick in order to talk about such things today.
      But there is one particular complaint that has been raised against Kaepernick that I feel does need to be raised here and now – in the context of a church service on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps the number one complaint raised against Colin Kaepernick, and the one that many people have found persuasive, has had to do with his failure to be grateful. Colin Kaepernick, because of his extraordinary ability to play football, had been extremely blessed. He received a top-notch education worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on a football scholarship. As a starting quarterback, he enjoyed a top salary and benefits. He was paid so much more than the vast majority of black men in the United States, more indeed than the majority of all Americans. And yet, here he was causing nothing but problems for the NFL that paid him so well and for the country that gave him the opportunity to do so well. He should only think about all that he has as an individual and not worry about what other people don’t have. He should be more grateful, people cried.
       This particular criticism of Colin Kaepernick cuts deep and on this day, of all days, it makes me question what the true nature of gratitude is and what it should be. I’m going to confess something to you here. When I saw that the lectionary reading for today, the reading from the Gospel of Luke, was the story of the healing of the ten lepers, I was a little bit distressed. You see, this is one passage but I have struggled with for years and that I especially dislike reading on Thanksgiving Sunday. It’s not really because of anything that’s actually in the story. It’s a wonderful story of healing and hope and grace as Jesus reaches out in it to some of the most disadvantaged and despised people in his society. No, my problem with it is how it has often been used on this day. In my experience, it has been used by privileged people to coerce gratefulness from those that they seek to control.
       It starts young and often with very good intentions. I have often seen this story used as a way to teach people – especially young people – of the importance of expressing thanks. The hero of this story of Jesus, we are told, is the one leper who alone out of the group, returns and kneels down to say thank you for what Jesus has done for him.
       The lesson, often the only lesson that some people get out of it, is that that you should always say thank you. Now, on one level, I am all for that. It is good to express your thanks and the world would likely be a better place if people did that more often. I am glad if children are taught to have that as a habit. My wish for all of us on this Thanksgiving Day is that we learn to celebrate and be grateful for what we have for there is so much contentment be found in that basic attitude.
       But there are moments when people’s expectation of gratitude from others becomes a problem. Think of the expectations that are often put upon racial minorities in North America. Yes, they do have much to be grateful for to be living in a country with so much prosperity and so many better opportunities then they likely would have had in their countries of origin. They are grateful. But does that mean that they cannot criticize incidences of racism or prejudice or systems that are biased against them having a fair chance? Because that is what they are often told.
       Most colonized people, including Canada’s own indigenous people, face the same expectations. They should be grateful, they are constantly reminded, for the benefits of modern Western civilization that they enjoy – education, medicine, infrastructure and more – but the underlying message behind that expectation is often that they shouldn’t lament the culture or language they may have lost, they shouldn’t lament the loss of the indigenous lifestyle or family structure or political independence that they have lost. Above all, the underlying message always seems to be, being grateful means that they should not disturb us with their complaints or demands. But is that truly what gratefulness means?
       In our reading this morning from the Book of Jeremiah, we find the prophet writing to a group of people called exiles in Babylon. These are people who have been ripped from their homes and been forced to travel for months and relocate in a land far from home. They are not immigrants; they are not refugees; they are exiles. Perhaps the closest thing that we can relate to is to say that they were kind of like the African Americans who, generations ago, were taken from their homes and relocated to North America as slaves against their will.
       So Jeremiah writes to these people. And I think he wants them to feel a bit better about where they are. And, honestly, there were some good things about being in Babylon. There was culture, the greatest culture on the face of the earth at the time, there was learning and infrastructure that ancient Israel simply couldn’t compete with. Why they apparently had hanging gardens in Babylon – one of the ten wonders of the world! They did have a chance at building a good life there.
       So, you know what, Jeremiah probably could have written to them and told them that they should be grateful for all the good things they had and forget about all the bad stuff. But I notice that he didn’t do that. Yes, he does tell them to stop putting their lives on hold and start building something where they are. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”
       That is, by the way, some pretty good advice. When things go wrong, when things don’t quite work out according to what we imagined, the temptation is always to put your life on hold and blame your situation for everything that you don’t like about your life. But nobody gets anywhere that way. Whatever your circumstance, whatever has gone wrong, your first order of business is to find a way to get on with your life. That is, in fact, a kind of gratefulness. It means not getting caught by the negatives, or at least not letting them stop you from moving on with your life.
       That is a good attitude, but it doesn’t take away from whatever injustices or indignities you may have suffered. And, in fact, it may well mean that you are working on rebuilding your life in defiance of those who have oppressed you.
       Jeremiah is not done. He has one more very important piece of advice for the Judeans in exile: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
       And I know how that might sound. It might sound like Jeremiah is telling them what hateful people sometimes tell immigrants and refugees. Some might interpret that to mean that they should just become Babylonians and forget who they have been. But I don’t think that that is what he’s saying. They are to take everything that they are and the God that they serve and use it to seek the welfare of the place where they have been taken. That includes seeking to make it a better place – a better place for all people, even for the exiles who are there. And some of the Babylonians might not appreciate all of the things that the exiles think would bring the welfare of the city. It’s about communication and compromise. It’s about everyone building the welfare of the city together and everyone bringing everything they’ve got to that process.
       I am grateful for this incredible country in which I live and which I love. I am grateful for the many and diverse people who come from many different backgrounds and bring an incredible richness to this country. But being grateful for this country does not merely mean but I’m going to build my own life and live it out as best as I can. That would be a very self-centred kind of gratitude. I will seek the welfare of this place where my God has placed me. Because I’m grateful for it, I will do what I can to make it better, to more fully reflect God’s intentions for all peoples. And that might disturb some people, because it gets in the way of how they thought they were going to build their life.
       I guess what I’m saying is that, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am struck by the image of not one but two kneeling men. One kneels at the feet of Jesus in gratitude because Jesus has healed him and set him free and restored him to human society. The kneeling is a show of respect and honour for Jesus and the God who sent him. And, yes, he can and should inspire us to be truly thankful for all that we have received from God’s hand.
       The other man also kneels. He kneels in honour and respect though some do not see it that way. He kneels because he is truly grateful for all that he has received. But he also kneels in protest because his country is not everything he believes that it should be. And I know that there are lots of people who don’t like that. You may not like it. That is fine; you’re not supposed to like it. That is kind of the point of protest after all. But I would like you to at least consider that sometimes, the true spirit of thanksgiving means more than silent gratitude for the situation in which you find yourself. It means that you have to seek the welfare of the city in which God has placed you – the welfare of all who live there, even those who may not have the voice that you have.
       This Thanksgiving will you kneel in true gratitude?
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Take your place at the table

Posted by on Monday, October 7th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 6 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
T
he Bible is an ancient book that is mostly concerned with ancient world problems and that is why I was kind of surprised the other day when I was reading in the Book of Habakkuk and I saw these words: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” I said, “Wow, Habakkuk, way to take the words right out of my mouth,” because it seems like every time I read or hear the news these days, I catch myself saying, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”
      I look at the latest news from the federal election campaign and I want to cry out to the news editors, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?”I watch the latest Brexit news out of Great Britain and I lament that “destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” And then I catch the news coming out of the United States – I hear about the latest investigation of the presidential administration and how they are saying that, this time, it’s going to be different, this time they’ve finally gone too far and we’re going to get them. And I say, “strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”

      I mean, I almost went to check the date on the Book of Habakkuk to make sure that it wasn’t written in 2019! But I am assured that it was written something like 2600 years ago and the destruction, violence, strife and contention that the prophet was concerned with had to do with the conquests of the ancient Babylonians and not the actions of modern presidents, prime ministers and politicians. But man, isn’t it amazing how little has really changed in about 2,600 years?
      There is one difference, though, Habakkuk isn’t complaining to the media about what they are reporting like I might; he’s complaining to God. His powerful complaint is to the God who is allowing all of these things to take place. He is actually entering into a very difficult conversation with the God who has called him and made him a prophet.
      And at first it seems as if God is not answering. Habakkuk is simply left wallowing in his despair at the state of things. But here is where Habakkuk really impresses me. He doesn’t give up. Instead, he says, I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.” Habakkuk will not allow God to get away without answering these difficult questions. Oh, couldn’t we use a few people like Habakkuk these days – people who are willing to stand firm and demand the answers that are needed for this troubled time?
      Isn’t that what Greta Thunberg was doing at the United Nations a couple of weeks ago? She got up there and eloquently stated her personal lament regarding the issue that stands closest to her heart. She demanded answers; she demanded action. Perhaps she is a Habakkuk, a watcher standing on the ramparts, for our time. She certainly has a way of shaking people up and getting them angry at her just like the ancient prophets of Israel did.
      Habakkuk’s struggle with God does lead him to a kind of an answer: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” This is a powerful answer for our time as well! Don’t give up on your vision. Don’t give up on your dream of what the world should be. Yes, it may tarry. It may take an awfully long time – far too long for those who struggle, who weep and who are weary. But it is coming. I think that those are words we need to hear today too.
      Habakkuk finishes this conversation with God by saying, “but the righteous live by their faith.”And these are the words upon which everything hangs because, with these words, Habakkuk is declaring that he’s not just talking about holding on to an optimistic ‘let’s hope for the best’ point of view. He’s talking about something much more powerful; he’s talking about faith.
      Shortly after Greta Thunberg made her speech at the United Nations, there was a Christian pastor who went viral when, in some interview, he gave his reasons for not worrying about things like global warming. His answer, you see, was that after the flood in Genesis, God put up a rainbow and made a promise that the earth would never be flooded again. Therefore, the pastor reasoned, there could be no such thing as a global climate catastrophe because the Bible said so. I know that there are some people who would call what that man said a great example of faith, but I disagree. That is not faith, it is thoughtless optimism. It doesn’t take any courage and it doesn’t take any stand. At times like this, Habakkuk is teaching us, living by faith is what’s going to get us there and that takes courage – that takes stepping out and imagining the world as it is supposed to be.
      In our reading this morning from the Gospel, Jesus is struggling with the same problem as Habakkuk. Jesus is, once again, preaching to the huge crowds of people who seem to gather wherever he goes. People came out to listen to Jesus, not because everything was going well in Galilee, but rather because things were going very badly indeed, and he offered them a better way to see the world.
      For example, many of the people in the crowd would have been slaves. There was a huge population of slaves in Galilee during the time of Jesus. In most places in the Roman Empire at that time, about twenty percent of the population were slaves. They did not have their freedom and had no hope of finding it. Many of these slaves made their way to whatever towns or villages Jesus passed through and they were eager to hear anything that he might have to say. But they, perhaps more than anybody else, understood just how unfair the world that they lived in was.
      One day, when Jesus was speaking to these crowds that included many slaves, he said this: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” Can you imagine how those words sounded to the slaves who were in the crowd? They would have understood very well that those were words that would never be spoken to them. They understood that there was no place at the table for them.
      That was one of the things that was fundamentally wrong with the society in which Jesus lived. The problem was not that there were some people who had to work really hard. That has always been true and will likely always be true. The problem was that they were some people who never had a place at the table. They did not belong and were not even recognized as human beings. And Jesus called it out right in front of everybody and even observed that everyone took it for granted that that was how it was supposed to be.
      Now, if that was all that Jesus had done, if he had simply pointed out the way things worked and moved on, that would have been a rather mean thing to do. But, of course, that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus, like Habakkuk, recognized what was wrong with the world, called it out, and then decided that the righteous should live by their faith. In other words, Jesus, in faith, would live out the world as it was supposed to be instead of how it actually was.
      How did Jesus do that? Well, one of the key ways that he did it was by practicing an open table. In a world that treated people very differently according to their social standing, status and gender and very carefully excluded from the dinner table all those who didn’t belong according to those standards – didn’t include slaves, didn’t include women and didn’t include people of lower social standing – Jesus made a point of breaking all of those social rules. When Jesus ate, there was a place for anybody. This seems to have been a hallmark and centerpiece of the ministry and work of Jesus, the way that he would share his table. He was constantly getting in trouble for it. People called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) precisely because of who he was willing to share his table with.
      But the kicker is that Jesus didn’t just do this because he enjoyed the company of all sorts of people. I mean, he obviously did enjoy their company, he was not just putting on a show, but there was more to it. He did it because he genuinely believed that the most perfect picture of the world as it was supposed to be (this thing that he liked to call the kingdom of God) was a picture of people of every status, every kind, sinners and outcasts included, gathered around one table enjoying one another’s company. It was a table with a place for everybody. That picture of the world as it was supposed to be was impossible in the world that Jesus lived in. So what did he do? He went ahead and lived it out anyways, no matter how much people complained and criticized. That is the kind of thing that Habakkuk was talking about when he said that the righteous live by their faith.
      So powerful was Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God that was made real around an open and welcoming table, that when the people who had loved him and followed him wanted to remember him, they naturally did it by gathering together and sharing in the same kind of meal where the table was open and everyone, no matter who she or he was, had a place. They shouldn’t have been surprised when they discovered, in those shared meals, that he actually hadn’t left them; he was there with them. And that is why today we will gather around this table. And it is not just here. In every church and all around the world today, Christians are gathering around this table because it is not just a physical table, it is a table where the image of the world as it is supposed to be – this ideal called the kingdom of God – is created if only a moment in time because at this table there is a place for everyone.
      In a little while, I will invite you to come to this table. I do it because I know that there is a place for you here. I know you are weary, that you have been labouring hard, plowing or tending sheep in the field, but there is a place at this table for you. I know that there have been people in your life who have treated you like a worthless slave or told you that you ought not to feel good about yourself because you have only done what you ought to have done, but there is a place for you at this table. You belong. And not only you but all sorts of people who are looked down upon, cast out and forgotten have a place at this table and we all need to get to work to invite them to take their places because this table is a sign of the world as it is supposed to be.
      I know you can’t see that world yet. In many ways, it seems more elusive today than it has ever been. But that doesn’t matter, because the righteous will live by their faith.

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Choosing Life: Make Foolish Investments (according to this world)

Posted by on Sunday, September 29th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 29 September, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
O
kay, let me see if I’ve got this straight. You, my little nephew, Hanamel, are coming to me with what you call an offer I can’t refuse. “Buy my field,” you say, “it’s a lovely little field at Anathoth. And it is just perfect, uncle,” you say. “The land is good, the birds sing in the bushes and the flowers bloom. It’ll be a wonderful place for you. Maybe you could even build a little house to retire in there. You’ll love it, so why not buy it?”
      Hanamel, I thank you for your offer. It is so nice of you. And just think, you came all the way here to see me and make your offer. All the way here to the court of the guard where I am sitting in chains being watched day after day because the king has decided that I am public enemy number one because I dare to challenge him and say to him that maybe he is not so smart to take on the greatest army on the face of the earth.
      But let’s not just talk about my present good fortunes. Let’s talk about that greatest army on the face of the earth that I mentioned a moment ago. Did you notice them on the way here, Hanamel, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon – the ones that totally surround the entire city? Yes, the ones with the great big swords and the chariots and archers who have locked up this entire city tighter than a drum. You’ve heard of them, I suppose? They’ve got a bit of a reputation for vanquishing enemies, laying waste to cities and perhaps, most of all, destroying nice little fields with good soil and bushes and tweeting birds in places like Anathoth!

      So, you see all of that and you very kindly think of poor old me, your uncle Jeremiah, rotting away here in the court of the guard and you say, Good ole uncle Jeremiah, he would surely love to buy this lovely little field. Well, I’ve got to say that it’s a tempting offer. In fact, I’m quite sure that my financial advisors would tell me that this is just the kind of investment I need to be making at this particular moment in history. I mean, who wouldn’t want to put everything on the line when absolutely no one has any clue what the future might hold. Well, Hanamel, I guess I really only have one question for you at this point: where do I sign.
      In my lifetime, I have seen a few ups and downs in the real estate market. I lived in the West Island of Montreal for a while, around the time of the second referendum. There were lots of English-speaking people who were suddenly very keen on finding employment elsewhere and that meant relocating and that meant selling houses. Everywhere you looked, there were “for sale” signs (or “à vendre” signs, because they had to be in French) and no one was buying. It was the perfect illustration of the fact that no one wants to make any significant investments when the future is uncertain. That’s about the closest time in my own personal experience to what Jeremiah was dealing with in our reading this morning but really a little bit of political uncertainty is almost nothing in comparison to a foreign invasion on top of the personal crisis of being thrown in prison by the king – now that’s uncertainty!
      Now, I know that we are presently living in what is often called a very hot real estate market. Housing profits are high and only seem to go higher and yet people are still very eager to buy. You might think that we have nothing in common with the kind of situation that Jeremiah was dealing with. You might think, therefore, that this ancient passage of scripture has nothing to say to us today, but let us look beyond the mere question of real estate prices for a minute and I think we may discover that Jeremiah’s choice is actually one that we are all struggling with these days.
      Today, more than ever, we are living in a time of uncertain futures. On some level, almost all of us are dealing with severe anxieties about the future. What will happen to the global economy? Sure, it has been on an unprecedented rise in recent years with employment soaring and huge amounts of money being made by some, but experts are pointing at worrying signs and everyone acknowledges that no economy can soar forever? What happens if the economy crashes hard? Uncertainty!
      We live in times of great political uncertainty. I’m not saying that all of the governments in the past were always good and just, but they have been at least kind of predictable ever since World War II. Everyone at least had a sense of what the boundaries were and respected the often unspoken rules of reasonable government. But we now find ourselves in an era where rules and precedents are made to be broken. Who could have predicted the Brexit mess in the United Kingdom? Who could have imagined a situation in the United States where constitutional norms are challenged on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis? And as for Canada, I was told that our present federal election was going to be boring with nothing to talk about – what happened there? What strange government might result. Unpredictable seems to be the rule of the day in global politics.
      And what about the environment? How are any of us supposed to plan for the future when we have huge numbers of scientists assuring us that, even if we make the enormous changes they are calling for, the earth itself may change beyond recognition in the coming decades. The promise of a climate catastrophe is likely the number one cause of insecurity about the future, especially among younger generations who are resisting having children and making major purchases (like property) because of it. Environmental unpredictability has become the most influential concern of our time.
      So, we may not have the Babylonian army at our gates, but we are dealing with massive insecurity about the future in our times. I believe that Jeremiah’s actions do speak to us. And what do they say? They say that people of faith are people who make what seem to be foolish investments when the future is uncertain.
      Now, I have often heard it said that Christians are people who believe in hope even when things seem hopeless and that is true and it is kind of what I am saying, but I am saying more than just that. When we speak of our hope in uncertain times, we generally only speak on an emotional level. We talk about how our faith comforts us and makes us feel better about our anxieties. And that is all good, we all need that, but I would notice that Jeremiah’s sense of hope goes far beyond just emotion. Jeremiah’s hope spurs him to action – foolish action, it seems, but decisive and meaningful action nonetheless.
      I sometimes think that my job, as a preacher of the gospel, is to persuade people to be like Jeremiah. I get up, week after week, and I declare to you, folks, that I don’t know what the future is going to hold, that things may go seriously wrong with the economy, with the political system, that things will probably go seriously wrong in the environment and climate. In addition, I don’t really know what the future of the church is going to be. Some of the economic, demographic and societal pressures that the church in Canada is dealing with, experts will say, could well spell the demise of the church as we have known it.
      I get up here, with all of that going on, and tell you, not merely that you should have hope for the future, but that you should invest in a future that I can’t quite show you. I ask you to put your time, your energy, your enthusiasm and, yes, your money on the line to build for a future that we can’t quite see. That is what it is to be a Christian preacher these days. That is what it is to be a Christian.
      And why do I do that? Is it because I am a fool? It is because I think you are fools? People may have thought that of Jeremiah and may think it of people of faith today, but it was not true for him and it is not true of us either. Why do we invest when the future is uncertain? Not because it makes sense according to the logic of this world. We do it because we are willing to place our trust in God.
      Can I stand here today and promise you that I know exactly what is going to happen to the economy or to property values? I cannot. But I can put my trust in the God who owns the earth and all that is in it, who owns the cattle on a thousand hills and claims all people as his own. I can tell you that the economy is in God’s hands and God promises to work for economic justice, sometimes in very unforeseen ways.
      I cannot stand here today and tell you that I know who is going to win the federal election. For that matter, I wouldn’t even dare to say that I think I know who ought to win that election. Honestly, I can’t even say at this moment that I know who I’m going to vote for. Sometimes I do look at the political situation in our country and in others and throw up my hands and say that I don’t have a clue what is going on. But I will put in the work that I need to in order to know how I will vote, and I will participate and speak when I have the chance. I will invest in the political process but I will not do it because it always all makes sense to me. I will do it because I know one who is the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords and who has a reign that will endure for ever and ever.
      I do not know what the future holds for the climate, but I am sure that the road ahead will not be easy. I’m not a climate scientist but I do take very seriously the warnings that climate scientists are sounding. I believe that radical change is needed and I will admit that I don’t have a lot of confidence in humanity or human leadership to make those changes. If anything, the climate crisis makes the human problem of sin – especially the sin of not being able to see beyond our own passions and passing desires – appear all the more clearly. I don’t know what the future of this planet looks like, but I do believe in the Creator, the one who laid the foundations of this earth and who has a plan for its future. (That is the promise of the Bible, by the way, not merely heaven but a new heaven and a new earth.) That is the only reason why I have hope for the future of this planet but, more importantly, it is what gives me the ability to invest in a future that I cannot imagine. That is why I can make the efforts to reduce my energy use and my waste. That is why I am bold to ask more from my leaders. Christians are people who make investments in a future that they do not see.
      And I cannot stand here today and tell you what the future of this church or any church will hold. I see great forces of change at work – demographic, societal, technological and much more. I can promise you that things will change but I don’t really know how – nobody does. But I have decided and will continue to decide to invest my life, my time and energy and my money in a future of the church that I don’t yet see. Why? Because it makes sense according to the understandings of this world? Not really. I do it because I know that somebody loved the church, somebody who died for it and who gave everything for it. If Christ could give it all for the sake of the church, I can know that whatever I make, it is not a foolish investment.
      I am your nephew, Hanamel, and I come to you today with an offer that you cannot refuse. I invite you to purchase a future – a future that you cannot see, but that is held in the hand of God. And honestly there is no better place for the future to be held than in those hands. What will you invest in that future?
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