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Where is the Promise of Peace on Earth?

Posted by on Sunday, December 10th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, December 10, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

As I thought about what I would preach on for this Sunday – this Second Sunday of Advent which is called Peace Sunday – I happened to be in a place where a lot of people seem to find themselves at this time of the year. Yes, that’s right, I was in a shopping mall.

It was shortly after Black Friday and the place was packed. Everyone was desperate. They all seemed to have millions of things to find, things like decorations and all the other things they would need for the big events of the season. And of course, there were lots of people who were frantic as they walked around and looked at how high the prices were. They were wondering how they could ever afford the gifts that they wanted to buy.

Frazzled Parents

The parents were looking pretty frazzled too. Their kids were going crazy looking for things they wanted to have and getting excited about the decorations and seeing Santa Claus. Many of them were looking as if they were at the very limits of their patience, and here we were only at the beginning of the season!

So, it was all a scene of noise, frustration and hurry. And yet, over top of all of it, blasting through the sound system of the entire mall, were the sounds of the most beautiful music proclaiming peace on earth, people of goodwill, love and joy. And it made me wonder, where is that promise of peace?

Other Struggles

Of course, there are a lot of other reasons why people aren’t feeling that peace than just the extraordinary hustle and bustle of the season. I don’t know about you, but I am connected these days with too many people who are deeply troubled by personal crises – their own and those of the people they love.

There are medical challenges and the sometimes-impossible choices that go along with them. People are trying to recover from devastating accidents and deal with debilitating treatments and therapies. Others are dealing with grief so raw that they don’t think that they will ever feel whole. When they hear the soundtrack of the season promising peace on earth, how can they not ask where is the promise of peace?

Countries at War

And, of course, we haven’t even touched the really big issue when it comes to peace on earth. For the people of Ukraine, for the unwilling Russian conscripts, for the people of Gaza and the West Bank enduring unrelenting bombing and the people of Israel who, whether they approve of their government’s actions or not, can’t help but wonder if they’ll ever be able to feel safe in their country, the question, “Where is the promise of peace?” resounds.

Our Attempts to Create Peace

We try in all of these situations to create peace. We try to bring peace to our Christmas preparations by doing things like getting organized or by starting early. Parents try to get their kids to settle down by just giving them everything that they ask for. People seek to find relief from their fears and anxieties by ignoring them and hoping they’ll just go away on their own. Some think that the only solution to the war in Ukraine is to just give Putin what he wants. And people have been trying to create peace in the Levant for decades.

But most of these plans, at best, seem able to produce a peace that is short-lived. The best laid plans have a way of becoming overwhelmed. Children who become accustomed to getting whatever they want somehow never become less demanding or disruptive. Anxiety that is pushed down deep inside tends to slip back out in unexpected and ultimately destructive ways. You give Russia what it wants, and it will only want more. And, well, Israel and Palestine have defied the wisdom of the best peacemakers in the world for generations. We try and we try but where is the promise of peace?

God’s Speaks Peace

In response to that question, we have this morning our reading from the Book of Psalms: Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.” Yes, it says that, in those very moments when peace seems most elusive, it can be found because God will speak peace to his people.

That seems like a wonderful promise. But it does raise a few issues, doesn’t it? If God can speak and peace is created, why hasn’t God just done that? What is God waiting for?

2nd Peter’s Thinking

I actually think that our reading this morning from the Second Letter of Peter might help us to answer that question. The writer is not speaking directly about the promise of peace. He is speaking about the apparent delay in the return of Christ that the people are complaining about. But I think that his explanation applies to both promises: But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”

This is saying that God does not experience time like we do and so can be infinitely patient in ways that we cannot even fathom. It is also saying that the patience of God is a good thing, even if we may not always experience it that way. And I think that all of that does apply to God’s promise of peace as well. You see, one of the real impediments to creating true peace in this world is our own haste. We are in too much of a hurry to get the sensation of peace now, and that prevents us from building the kind of peace that lasts.

When We Rush to Peace

And so, to give a simple example, when parents are desperate to get just a little bit of peace and quiet from their kids at this time of year, they may opt for the quick solution of giving them candy or some other thing to indulge them. And of course, it works in the short term. But wise parents learn quickly that short-term peace can lead to a much more turbulent situation in the longer term, especially if, for example, you load up your kid with so much sugar that they practically lose all control.

The wise parent knows that the real way to build a peaceful family is through character and relationship building for parent and child alike. That can be a lot of work and it may not always be comfortable, but it really is the only way to have peace that will last.

And that is how it is for so many other things. Building true and lasting peace takes risk, commitment and time. But we are always too tempted to take shortcuts and that is a big part of our problem.

Paired Concepts

The psalm doesn’t just promise that God will speak peace to his people. It also describes the process for creating such peace. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; Righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, And righteousness will look down from the sky.” This is describing, one by one, those very concepts that are needed to heal our troubled world. We will not get anywhere unless we are able to do it with love, faithfulness, righteousness and peace. But notice how the author very poetically presents these notions. He presents them as pairs, pairs that are meeting one another and intimately embracing one another.

The message behind the intentional pairing of these words seems clear. You cannot have one of these things without the other. Love without faithfulness can easily become self-indulgence. Faithfulness without righteousness can lead to supporting a person, a country or a company even if they are doing evil things. When we become focussed on promoting one thing, no matter how good, without taking the care to balance it with other good things, it can actually lead to an evil outcome.

Righteousness and Peace

And nowhere is that more important than in the central pair: “Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” Peace that is not established in a positive relationship – a kissing relationship – with righteousness will fail.

Let me explore what that is saying a bit. The word righteousness is one of those biblical words that people sometimes don’t understand the full meaning of. For many people, the word righteousness doesn’t really have the best of associations. For many of us, righteous people are simply people who think that they are better than everybody else because of some moral stance that they have taken.


But the Hebrew word that is used in that verse means so much more than that. The word that is used in that verse in Hebrew is צִדְקָה (tsidqah) and it does not mean moral superiority or feeling as if you are better than other people. It means justice and not retributive justice when you get back at somebody who has hurt you. It refers to a situation where all things are in balance and where everyone gets a fair shake. It means righteousness in the sense that all the right things happen.

What that means is that whenever we rush towards peace and it doesn’t work or it doesn’t last, the reason is clear. We have tried to establish peace without justice. The two are not kissing each other. And peace cannot last without its romantic pair.

Lasting Peace

In your personal life, if you try to create peace by pushing all of the grief and the loss and the worries and fears deep down inside and you don’t let them out, for example, that will not create lasting peace. You need to allow for what is right – for your fears and losses to be expressed and dealt with. The peace can only last when it is paired with what is right.

If you want to seek peace in your relationships, it is never going to be enough to establish that peace in isolation. Yes, you can decide to not talk about the differences that exist between you and the other person. You can act peaceful on the surface, but unless you are able to work through the points of contention and find a balance and judgement that is fair to all, you won’t find lasting peace in your relationship. Peace and righteousness must kiss.

National and International Conflict

And, of course, this is nowhere truer than when you talk about national and international conflict. Again and again, nations have sought to impose peace through strength. They’ve created a situation where their army has such an overwhelming advantage in terms of arms or sheer numbers, and they believe that that is what will pacify the people that they have colonized, occupied or invaded.

It often works in the short term. But it never works in the long term. Until you can address the deep issues of injustice, racism and exploitation, there will never be peace. It doesn’t even matter how much an oppressed people are outgunned, the mere fact that they know that, no matter what they do, they cannot beat their oppressors, will only eventually lead them to the conclusion that, since they have nothing to lose, the only thing that they have left is the possibility of lashing out at their oppressors.

No Justification of Terrorism

None of this, in any way, should be taken to be a justification for those who resort to extreme tactics like terrorism or suicide bombing. These are absolutely deplorable acts and worthy of all condemnation. But condemnation and reprisal will not stop it from happening. That is a problem that we are all dealing with and that prevents true peace from being established in our world.

And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, let us indeed pray for peace on earth. The earth is sorely in need of it. But let us pray with some understanding that true peace, peace that lasts, is not an easy thing. I am thankful for a God who speaks peace to his people and I pray that all God’s people will hear that voice. I pray that we understand that real peace will take some work and will take some change. Above all, I pray that we understand that it will only last when peace and righteousness kiss one another.

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The Lesson of the Fig Tree

Posted by on Sunday, December 3rd, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, December 3, 2023 © Scott McAndless – First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

There is a famous, some would say infamous, story in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is out walking with his disciples one day when he sees a fig tree in the distance. The tree has lots of leaves on it so he goes over to see it, thinking that perhaps it might have some figs.

But it is only springtime, not yet the season for figs, and so of course there aren’t any figs, only leaves. This is when the story goes off the rails. Jesus doesn’t react like a normal person and say, “Oh well, I guess it's just too early for figs.” No, Jesus becomes enraged at the tree for failing to produce fruit out of season. He curses it saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

A Serious Curse

But it is not that Jesus – obviously a bit cranky because he didn’t get any breakfast – utters a lighthearted curse. No, he is apparently deadly serious. When, the next day, the disciples pass by the same spot they are shocked to discover that the poor fig tree, which only acted according to its nature, has withered away to the roots. It will indeed never bear any fruit again.

It is the kind of bizarre story that, if someone came up to you and told you it was in the Bible, you might not believe them. But the problem is really only there when you pull the story out of its context. When you look at everything that is going on around it, you realize that there is more to this odd little tale than what you see at first.

A Symbol

The fig tree, you see, is not just a fig tree. It is a symbol. In the Bible, a fig tree is used as a symbol of the people and the nation of Israel. The Prophet Jeremiah specifically says, for example, that the people of Israel are like a fig tree that produces no figs. (Jeremiah 8:13) So, what Jesus does is meant to be a reference to passages like that.

What’s more, between the time that Jesus curses the fig tree and when it withers, what does he do? He goes into the temple in Jerusalem and cleanses it of all the money changers and sellers. He essentially shuts the place down which suggests that the unfruitful tree is symbolic of the unfruitfulness of the temple, the central institution of Judean society, and its failure to care for the needs of the people.

A Few Days Later

Well, a few days after all that happened, we are told that Jesus was sitting around and shooting the breeze with the disciples on the Mount of Olives. And he began to talk to them about the things that would happen in the future.

A lot of what he was saying was kind of disturbing and frightening. He spoke about the temple being destroyed and horrible events like the sun going dark and the stars all falling out of the sky. I don’t think that it was all meant to lay out a perfect roadmap of exactly what would happen so much as he was just warning them that there were a lot of troubles ahead.

A Callback

But then Jesus said something that I find interesting because it seems to be a callback to the whole fig tree incident of a few days before. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

I mean, would you say that if you had done what Jesus did? It could be a kind of embarrassing reminder. “Hey guys remember how the other day I made that stupid mistake? How I thought that, because a fig tree had leaves, it was autumn and it would have fruit, but I was wrong, and the leaves meant that summer was coming? Yeah, don’t do that!” I mean, that is essentially what he is saying.

But (as much as I am certain that Jesus had a good sense of humour) I don’t think he is saying any of this to make fun of himself. I think that it is a confirmation that the whole fig tree incident was an intentional object lesson. He calls it back because he wants to bring the lesson home.

What is the Lesson?

And what is the lesson of the fig tree? If the figless fig tree represents the failure of the temple to respond to the needs of the people, then it is a very discouraging image. It represents the failure of the central institution of that society to do what it was created to do. That is potentially catastrophic. A society whose institutions have failed is usually on the brink of utter collapse – which is, of course, the very thing that Jesus is talking about in this passage.

What’s more, it is a kind of discouragement that we can all sympathize with. We seem to be living in an age where institution after institution is failing to live up to its promise. These institutional failures are causing many of the crises that are overtaking us.

The Housing Market

Take, for example, the institution of real estate in our country. It was an entire system that was set up to provide people with places to live near where they could work and companies space to flourish. But have you noticed how it doesn’t fulfill that purpose anymore?

More than anything else, it has become a vehicle for investment, profit and speculation. Those things were always part of it, of course, but they have taken on such a central role that it can no longer fulfill that original mandate. That is one big reason why we are dealing with a housing crisis.

So far has it strayed from its original purpose that we have seen a government thinking that the only way that they could do anything about the housing crisis was by giving environmentally protected lands, far from anywhere, to developers who would build mansions to sell for millions to people who can only drive fancy cars to work.

I can see how such a move would have juiced all kinds of profits and rewarded the speculation of the developers, but I fail to see how it could have done much to help any of the people who can’t afford housing now. But that is where we seem to be now, so much has the system failed that we can’t even imagine how it could work for its original purpose anymore.

I believe that that was the kind of thing that Jesus was pointing to when he pointed out that the temple was bearing no fruit. And it is not the only institution that is failing our society today.

Other Failing Institutions

Institutions of higher education are failing to yield the fruit they were created to produce. They were supposed to set students up with the knowledge and tools they need to find stable and meaningful employment. Increasingly all that they are setting students up for is life-long debt and jumping from one gig job to another just trying to survive.

And, if that were not enough, these universities and colleges are increasingly dedicating their resources to bringing in international students, taking all of their money and offering them little more than a substandard education and the vague hope that they might be able to become citizens. I’m sorry to have to tell you these things, but that fig tree is no longer producing its fruit.

And can we talk about how seniors’ residences, these institutions that were supposed to offer people the possibility of aging with dignity becoming increasingly institutions whose goal it is to suck up all of their residents’ assets before they die? Can we talk about how government becomes less and less about creating policies that actually help people and more and more about duelling personalities?

Jesus Would Criticize

I suspect that, if Jesus were among us today, he would look one by one at the various institutions of society – churches, policing, drug companies, journalism – and he would point out all of the ways in which they have become corrupted by the selfish, hateful and cynical spirit of our age and are no longer bearing the fruit that they are supposed to. He would point out that that is exactly what is making our times so miserable.

I know I am being blunt, but I do think that if Jesus was that hard on the fig tree that was the temple, he would be just as hard on our institutions.

None of that should reflect negatively on individuals within those institutions. Many, if not most, are good people just trying to do their best. Just as there were, no doubt good priests in the temple who cared about the people, there are lots of good congregations, good journalists and politicians, good cops and developers who do their best to help. But, when the institutions themselves have lost their orientation towards what matters, sometimes even the efforts of the best people can come to nothing.

A Positive Lesson

I realize that all of this might sound rather discouraging, and the fact of the matter is that we do seem to be living in discouraging times right now. But I want you to stick with me a moment here because this is actually not a discouraging verse in the Gospel of Mark.

When Jesus reminds his disciples of the lesson of the fig tree that is producing lots of leaves but no fruit, he is encouraging them. Yes, he is saying that the institutions of our society are collapsing because they are not producing their intended fruit, but there is still hope. The leaves are a sign. They are not a sign that fruit is present. Jesus doesn’t want us to make the same mistake that he did. But they are a sign of the coming summer.

He is Near

And so Jesus says, When you see these things taking place,” when you see your institutions failing, “you know that he is near, at the very gates.” What does that mean? It means that, when our society fails, that is when God steps in. And, yes, ultimately in this passage that is imagined in terms of Christ returning and such apocalyptic signs as the sun going dark and stars falling from the sky. But, at the same time, the message also has to be that we don’t have to wait for that ultimate resolution to see the action of God and the rebirth of hope.

Jesus promised the disciples, after all, that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And, while some of it did happen in their lifespans, it certainly didn’t all come to pass.

Nevertheless, the promise he was giving was real. Though the unfruitful temple may be razed to the ground – and, as Jesus promised, that did happen in 70 AD – you don’t need to lose hope. In the same way, Jesus would say to us today, though all of the institutions of your society may fail, do not despair because God will not abandon you.

Active Waiting

And I don’t believe that we will have to wait until the Son of Man comes in clouds with great power and glory to experience that hope. God is already at work to create hope for our society even as our traditional institutions fail.

I see some of that in our community. I see it in a project at the Legion to actually go ahead and build affordable housing. I see it in new efforts being put forth in the city to prevent people from being evicted. I see people coming forward with creative ideas to reinvent these institutions even as they fail.

I do believe that God is in all such efforts and always has been. When our human institutions fail, God will always appoint people here and there to create renewal and possibility. Maybe God is doing that work in you even now.

We should not close our eyes to the problems that plague our society. We should not try to pretend that they are not there. But, at the same time, we must not lose hope when we don’t see the fruit that is needed. The leaves mean that the summer is coming. The promise of warmth and life is coming. And before long, the autumn will follow with its promise of new fruit. That is the lesson of the fig tree.

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Sorting Sheep and Goats

Posted by on Sunday, November 26th, 2023 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, November 26, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Reign of Christ
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

The passage that Allison read to us this morning, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, has got to be one of my favourite parables. I have returned to it again and again down through the years as I reflect on questions about how we ought to live as Christians and how we ought to find the presence of Jesus in this world.

But, as I reflected on the parable this time, I was struck by something. I’ve always focused on the things that the Son of Man says to the two different groups about what they have done or failed to do. But I’ve never really paid much attention to what happens before that. Before the Son of Man speaks to them, he does something very important. He sorts them out into two groups: the sheep and the goats.

How to Sort the Animals

I always assumed that that part of the story didn’t matter much. It was just sort of the setup for what was going to follow. But maybe I shouldn’t have made that assumption. I don’t know what is involved in separating sheep from goats. But the people who would have listened to Jesus tell the story, would have been much more familiar with both animals. Would they have read more into that sorting than someone like me?

You can sort sheep from goats by using their different physical characteristics. Goats tend to have straight hair while sheep have woolly fur. The horns, if they have them, grow differently – straight up or curling back. Goat tails go up while sheep tails go down. Presumably, the shepherd would use these physical traits to sort the animals.

More than Appearance

But surely, you would think, this parable can’t just be about a difference in appearance. Because that would mean that this parable starts with the Son of Man profiling people based on how they look. And that can be quite problematic, can’t it? We have all seen how such profiling has often contributed to racism and other alarming prejudices. I have a bit of trouble with the notion that, when Jesus judges the people of this world, he would make use of anything like such an approach.

So, I don’t think that this parable begins with appearance. It’s got to be about something else – some other difference between sheep and goats. Many of us, with our lack of experience of such things, don’t see much difference between sheep and goats beyond appearance. But they are, in fact, very different animals.

Differences in Behaviour

The only thing I know about goat behaviour is that, apparently, Bill Grogan’s goat was feeling fine one day and he ate three red shirts right off of the line. I don’t know if you know that song, but I certainly learned it when I was growing up. But that old camp song does hint at something true about goats. They will eat just about anything.

They are particularly adventurous in searching for their meals. They will step out quite alone and go far afield looking for some tasty tidbit. As such, they do often get into a fair bit of mischief. So, think of goats as the great individualists of the pastures. They tend to behave as if it is every goat for him or herself.

For the sheep, on the other hand, it is all about the herd. Sheep stick together. They know that they are safest when they are close to one another and look out for one another. They always graze close to the ground on tasty grass and clover and are not adventurous in their diets. If one sheep goes off in a particular direction, the rest are very likely to follow. Sheep are the great communitarians of the pastures. And I think that there is something of relevance in that to the whole parable.

Judging Based on What They Did

When the Son of Man comes, you see, we are told that he will judge between the sheep and the goats based on what they did: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And those are all very laudable and praiseworthy actions, of course. But the very notion that such actions lead to salvation or access to the kingdom of God for the sheep raises some theological questions.

Teaching about Salvation

The teaching about salvation in much of the New Testament, especially as it is laid out by the Apostle Paul, is quite clear. Our good deeds and best intentions, as wonderful as they might be, are not what earns us salvation. We are just not able to attain the standards of God’s goodness and righteousness on our own power. But that is okay because God offers us whatever salvation we need as a gift, something that is obtained for us by what Jesus has done for us. This is called grace, and it is activated in our lives by faith – not by us believing certain things but by us choosing to put our trust in Jesus.

This teaching is foundational to Christian theology. Yet it seems to be contradicted in this parable when the sheep are told that they will inherit the kingdom because of what they have done. That’s why I can’t help but wonder whether there might not be a little bit more than just that going on in this parable. Perhaps it’s not just about what these grazing animals have done or failed to do. Maybe it has something more to do with the differences between sheep and goats. Maybe it has something to do with their nature.

Charitable Deeds

The sheep in this parable engage in what we might call good deeds and specifically in charitable deeds. They have been giving of their time and talent to visit people who are struggling. They have provided food and clothing to those who need them. And such charitable deeds are certainly good and praiseworthy. But I also think that we are becoming more and more aware that such charitable giving is sometimes little more than a band-aid, and not a solution to the real problems of poverty, isolation and exclusion.

We have certainly seen that through our experience here at St. Andrews, but we also see it all across this country in the wake of the economic troubles of the last few years. The number of families using resources like food banks is growing constantly. The numbers doubled in Toronto over the last year. But simply giving people emergency food, though essential, doesn’t solve the underlying problems of low wages, underemployment and unaffordable housing.

Why They Are Not Necessarily Enough

Charitable acts are good, of course, especially when responding to immediate crises and when helping people to survive in an unfair world, but if all we are doing is giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked and visiting those who have been unjustly imprisoned or who have fallen ill because of all of the ways in which the world is just not right, nothing will ever change. By keeping the most disadvantaged from becoming so hopeless that they rebel, we might even be helping to maintain an unacceptable status quo.

What is needed is a whole new mindset, a different way of thinking about the problems. And this parable seems to suggest that a goat’s mindset is not going to do it. Goats are only interested in taking care of themselves. It is a constant scramble to find what they desire or need. But so long as that is all we can think about – and we are constantly being told in our society today that that is all that we should think about – the deep underlying problems will not be tackled.

Thinking Like Sheep

No, what I think this parable is suggesting is that the sheep’s approach of looking out for the whole community and working collectively on our problems is the only way that anything can possibly change. Obviously, a change in mindset is only the beginning, a lot of work needs to be done to bring about actual change in how society works. But I would suggest that it must start with a fundamental shift from thinking like goats to thinking like sheep.

Author holds up a sheep and a goat in either hand.

And, if that is part of the parable and the message that Jesus is trying to give, then doesn’t that cast the whole question about gaining entrance into the kingdom into a very different light? Perhaps what he’s really saying is not that the sheep have earned their way into the kingdom by their good deeds, perhaps the meaning is that they are already part of the kingdom because of the way they have chosen to look at the world, a worldview that has led them to behave in certain ways, doing such things as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

A Different Way of Seeing Things

For me, that brings this parable much closer to the teaching about salvation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament. It is about grace, and it is about responding to that grace with faith and trust. The point of the parable is that, when you do respond like that, it does tend to make you relate to the world in different ways. If you have come to understand all that God has done for you in and through Jesus Christ, if you understand how Jesus laid himself down for the sake of all of his people, how can you just continue to approach the world like a goat? How can you only be concerned with feeding and taking care of yourself without thinking about the needs of those who struggle?

And when you understand it that way, you can see that it is not that the sheep have earned their way by means of their good deeds. It is rather that their good deeds have shown them up for who they truly are, just as the failure to respond to need has shown up the goats for who they truly are. The sheep are those who have learned to trust in God’s grace, and it has changed the way that they have lived. And so, you see, the Son of Man has not sorted the two groups based on appearance. I told you he wouldn’t do that. But the way they have acted and behaved and the way that they have related to their world, have been the very criteria that the Son of Man has used to recognize those who were already his.

Eternal Punishment

This parable ends with the goats being sent “away into eternal punishment.” And that is indeed a very troubling image. The idea that God would condemn a group of people to eternal punishment just for failing to respond to people in need does not particularly sound like a gracious act. But remember that this is a parable and not a literal description of what is going to happen at the end of all things. And it is not about what people have done so much as it is about how people have come to see the world.

I tend to understand it this way. Those who have learned from Jesus and his example of perfect service and sacrifice and so have come to see the world like sheep, are already living into the reality of the kingdom of God. That is why they show it in their actions.

Those who stubbornly hold to a goatish worldview have essentially cut themselves off from the kingdom here and now. Their way of seeing the world means that they will never encounter the living Christ in this world because they cannot see him in the face of the hungry, naked, sick and captive.

Living in the Kingdom Now

This is less about what happens to us when we are dead than it is about what kingdom we choose to live in here and now. I happen to believe that, after we all die, we will simply find ourselves in the hands of the gracious God who has been revealed to us in Jesus. I do not fear the punishment of such a God, no matter what my failures or shortcomings might be.

It all starts with choosing to trust in him. The more we live into that faith, the more it transforms us and the more the world is transformed through us.

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Two women who stepped up when men failed

Posted by on Sunday, November 19th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, November 19, 2023 © Scott McAndless – 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-10, 15-24, Judges 5:24-31, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

One day, when I was quite young, I stumbled upon the passage that we read in the Book of Judges this morning. It was just the sort of story that an adolescent boy can’t get enough of. What can I say, I loved the violence and the gory details of the story of Jael. It quickly became the Bible story that I loved to show off to people when they wanted to know something weird from the Bible. I guess some things never change.

Heroic Women

But I have learned recently to appreciate the story for some reasons beyond the somewhat gory details. It is a story of how men messed everything up, pushed people to the edge and they were only making everything worse. And it is a story about how women had to step in and save the day.

And, if you do much reading in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, you will know what a truly extraordinary thing such a story is. The Bible is a book that was written within a society that was completely oriented towards male dominance and authority.

The Usual Biblical Heroine

The heroes of the Bible, by and large, are men. Whenever the nation is in need of saving, they are the ones who ride to the rescue. Female heroines are few and far between and most often their work of saving the nation comes in the form of producing children to ensure the next generation, which is not to suggest even for a moment that such work is not important or heroic, it is. It is just that the Bible so often assumes that that is the only heroic role that a woman can have.

It is for that reason that the story of Deborah and of Jael stands out in the Bible. And, unfortunately, the tradition has often ignored these extraordinary women. That is a real shame because, while it is true that the Bible is focused on the stories and fates of men, it is not true that it simply discounts the women of the history of faith. Sometimes it takes some digging, but incredible stories are there. So, I would like to share with you the story of two extraordinary women who saved the Hebrew nation at a time of great peril.


Deborah sat under a palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim as she did most every day. The place, which was indeed a holy and sanctified place, was so closely associated with this extraordinary woman, that you just had to say the Palm of Deborah, and everyone immediately knew what tree you were talking about.

Deborah was acknowledged by all as a wise and thoughtful woman. People respected her opinions so much that they would come from miles around to stand before her and ask her to settle their arguments and disputes. She always sought to act with justice and compassion and so her judgments were highly valued. Because they believed that she had been designated by God to lead the people, they called her Embeyisrael – the mother of Israel.

Bigger Problems

But, while Deborah could certainly help people to work through their individual disputes, they still struggled collectively with a very big challenge. Jabin, the King of Hazor, had become very wealthy and powerful throughout the whole region. And he had used his wealth and his influence to exploit the Hebrew people.

He kept them from living peaceably in the land and profiting from the work of their hands. His chief enforcer, Sisera, squeezed the people to wring every last bit of profit that he could out of them. And Deborah felt that, if she was to be a true leader of the people, she ought to have the courage to tackle this system of subjugation and exploitation that was destroying them.

But there was a problem. The systemic exploitation of Jabin and Sisera could only be challenged through direct confrontation. In that culture, it was not considered seemly for a woman to engage in that kind of thing. If she was going to take direct action, she would have to ask another to lead.

The Man for the Job

And so she sent for Barak. Barak was a man, a requirement for the job, but he had also shown himself capable of leading the militia of the tribes of Israel. She knew that if he spoke on her behalf and asked the tribes to come in the name of the Mother of Israel, they would respond.

But Barak was hesitant. The problem was not that he didn’t believe that he could do it. He was a man; he had no doubts about that. But he was somewhat resentful of the very idea that he might need to call up the tribes on behalf of the Mother of Israel. He felt as if this would rob him of the honour and the glory that was due to him and his name.

Barak’s Condition

 And so, he said that he would only do it on one condition. She would have to go with him. He figured that this way, if he was not successful, he could always blame the failure on her. Whereas, if he actually managed to defeat Sisera, that could only happen in the thick of battle where Deborah could not go. Thus, only he would have the glory from such a victory.

He thought that Deborah would refuse. Most men would have, for what man is willing to risk his life in battle without the possibility of earning personal glory? But Deborah didn’t think like a man. She would have laid aside all her own glory in order that her people might be safe from those who oppressed them. And so, Deborah agreed. But she could not help herself from giving a warning to Barak that he might be valuing the wrong things.

“I will surely go with you;” she said. “Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” But Barak only laughed at that. He was absolutely certain that there was no way that Deborah could steal his glory when he won.

The Wife of Heber

Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite. And Heber, like most of the Kenites, had a rather precarious existence in the territories of the people of Israel. He lived as a nomad, herding sheep and cattle and living in tents as he travelled around in search of the best pastures.

As a herder, he had often had many clashes with the Israelite tribespeople. The Israelites, who were trying to eke a living out of their little plots of farmland, often resented it when herders like Heber let their animals graze on their land and destroy their crops.

And so, Heber sought some protection from his enemies, the Israelites. He went to the only strongman he could find and one who had no great love or respect for the Israelites. He made a deal with Sisera – a protection deal. He paid off Sisera and Sisera made sure that bad things happened to anyone who clashed with Heber.

So, Heber was actively participating in the exploitation of the settled Hebrews. Jael, his wife, hadn’t been consulted about any of this, of course, she was just expected to go along with it.

Her Own Person

But Jael was not just a possession belonging to her husband. The Hebrews might have had a law that went like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour,” but Jael knew that she was more than her husband’s possession.

Jael had eyes to see, and she had a brain to interpret the things that she saw. She saw how Sisera was oppressing the people. She knew that it wasn’t right. And the safe thing to do about that would have been to just keep her head down and do what her husband told her to do, but Jael wasn’t that kind of person.

The Battle at Kishon

When Barak looked down upon the Wadi Kishon and saw where Sisera had gathered his army, his heart quailed at the sight. The army of Hazor was massive and well-equipped. There had to be about 900 iron chariots on the floor of that valley. Barak knew that the men at his back who had gathered from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were only farmers who had beaten their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears. How could they possibly hope to take on such professional troops? He was ready to call the whole thing off.

But, as Deborah looked over his shoulder, Yahweh allowed her to see something that he had missed. There had been a rainfall the night before, and the floor of the wadi was a mass of churned-up mud. She suspected that Sisera’s chariots would not give him the advantage that Barak feared. She commanded Barak in front of all the men. “Go, for God has given Sisera into your hand today!”

Barak really had no choice. His honour would not allow him to be chastised by a woman and do nothing about it. And so he brandished his sword and with a cry to Yahweh, the warrior god of Israel, he led the tribesmen as they charged down the steep sides of the wadi.


The men of Hazor were taken by surprise in the sudden attack. Under normal circumstances, they would have recovered quickly and maneuvered their chariots by the time the Israelites fell upon them. But the wheels of the chariots quickly became mired in the mud and Sisera’s army fell into confusion. The lightly armoured Israelite infantry swept over the trapped charioteers and they began to flee in every direction. But the wheels turned so slowly because of the mud, that the infantry were able to give chase and Barak led his troops in what felt like a rout.

So, there was victory that day, but there was no honour. For, in the confusion and while everyone was concentrating on the chariots, Sisera had slipped away on foot. And so, Barak knew that part of what Deborah had promised had come to pass. He would not gain the glory that he was due for such a victory. But, as he looked across the field and saw Deborah standing there, he took solace in one thing. At least all that she had predicted had not come to pass. She had not stolen his glory. So, at least the very worst had not happened and he had not been outshone by a mere woman.

A Demanding Visitor

Jael was alone in her tent. Her husband was away following his herds as usual. He would often be gone for days at a time leaving her to deal with whatever might happen.

And, it seemed, something definitely was happening outside her tent right now. There had been sounds of battle just beyond the hills for several hours. Now she heard the sound of somebody running. As she looked out, she saw that there was a man who was coming towards her. He was panting and, as he cried out with what little breath he had left, she suddenly recognized him. It was Sisera, the enforcer of Hazor.

As he approached the tent, all red and sweaty, he began to demand things of her. He reminded her of the alliance that her husband had made with his king and that she was required to live by it. That meant, he insisted, that she must hide him from his enemies who were seeking to kill him. She had no choice.

Jael Makes a Choice

And so, Jael responded immediately. “Oh, you poor dear,” she cried. “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” And so, he came into her tent. He seemed to be afraid that his pursuers were only just a little behind him. He insisted that she hide him inside the tent as well. She laid him down in a corner and covered him with a rug. His final request to her was for a little water to drink, for he had been fighting and then running all day.

As she turned away to fetch what he requested, her eye fell on something. There, right by the tent flap, was a skin of milk. She had filled it from the she goat only minutes before Sisera had appeared and it would still be warm. As a mother, she knew very well that a bit of warm milk can do wonders to calm an impetuous child and perhaps even send it to sleep. Ever since he had appeared, Sisera had been acting like an impetuous child. And so, she gave him the milk to drink instead of water. And it worked like a charm. The exhausted man soon fell into a deep sleep.

The Tent Peg of Justice

Jael should not have done what she did next. It was a betrayal of the alliance her husband had made with the king of Hazor. It also violated the laws of hospitality, for anyone she had invited into her tent should have been under her protection. But then again, had she really invited him, or had she been invaded?

There, in that tent that day, something changed for Jael. She knew the damage that Sisera did to the people of Israel. She knew that, even if letting him have his way might be in the interest of herself and her family, it was truly not the right thing.

She also knew that nobody else was going to do a thing about it. So she decided that she would. She slipped outside the tent, grabbed a spare tent peg and a mallet, and the rest is a gory story to fascinate adolescent boys.

When Jael went out to find Barak and bring him back to her tent to witness the results of her handiwork, she expected him to be pleased. His enemy was gone! But his face fell, and he muttered darkly something about how the Mother of Israel had tricked him.

The Oldest Story?

The story of Deborah and Jael is thought by many scholars to be one of the oldest stories in the Bible. The Song of Deborah, from which we also read this morning, is written in some of the most archaic Hebrew in the entire book. I definitely think that more people should know the story and that is why I wanted to deal with it today.

But that still leaves us, of course, with the question of what we are supposed to do with it. I’m sure that none of us would want to take the lesson from it that we ought to all try and solve our problems with tent pegs.

Learning from Two Extraordinary Women

But, while we shouldn’t emulate their methods, I think we can all learn a lot from these women’s spirits. They were confronted by huge problems and great injustices. They also suffered from the curse of being told all their lives that they couldn’t do anything about the problems of this world because of who they were.

I think we are all given that message – many of us are given it constantly. What is the point of trying to challenge injustice? Who do you think you are? You are just a woman – just a minority – just a small church – just fill in the blank – why even try?

But whenever someone makes you feel like that, I think you should be able to tell them a story of a woman sitting under a palm tree and another woman who just finished milking a goat. If God could use them, why not you? Why not us?

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What to Think About the Rapture

Posted by on Sunday, November 12th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, November 12, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Have you heard about the Rapture? If you move in certain Christian circles – or read the right books or watch the right YouTube channels you almost certainly have heard about the Rapture. In some churches it is taught as doctrine.

It is part of a belief about what is to come, what will happen at the end of all things when Christ returns. The most common teaching about the Rapture is that, just before the end of the world as we know it – just before Christ returns – there will be a time of great tribulation and suffering. As you can imagine, with all of the awful things going on in the world lately, there has been a lot of talk about such tribulations starting soon.

But the Rapture is an event that is supposed to take place just before the worst of the tribulations set in. In this event, those who believe in Christ are to be snatched up into the air and taken away into heaven where they will be spared from all the suffering that is to come.

Popular Belief

A lot of people have come to believe this, especially as it has been popularised in a series of fictional novels known as the Left Behind series and also a movie. It is supposed to be a comforting belief, I know, but I have got to admit that, when I first heard about it as a young man, I did not experience it as comforting.

The very idea tended to create anxiety. It was portrayed as something that could happen at any moment – that people would suddenly just disappear. I worried that it would happen when I wasn’t ready – that I would just be left behind to face the worst events imaginable.

Among many Christian groups, particularly the more evangelical groups, belief in the Rapture has become very common. So much so that it often seems as if it is something that all Christians believe in and always have believed in. So, I thought that it would be helpful to outline where the notion came from and look into what it might indicate about the state of Christian belief today.

Where it Comes From

So, where does the Rapture come from? If you Google it or look it up on Wikipedia, you will almost certainly land on the passage of scripture that we read this morning from the First Letter to the Thessalonians – in particular the verse that says, Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.” But let me tell you a few things about the interpretation of that verse.

For the first approximately 1780 years since the Apostle Paul wrote that letter to the church in Thessalonica, as far as we can tell, nobody understood that that verse was describing anything like what is today understood as the Rapture. The idea that all good Christians would be caught up into the air at the beginning of the end times was completely absent from all forms of Christianity until sometime around 1830 AD. So, first of all, when people tell you that the Rapture is something that is spoken of in the Bible, you really have to ask the question, if it is plainly in the Bible, how is it that so many Christians never found it there for so very long?

John Nelson Darby

The person who first introduced the idea of the Rapture to the world was a preacher named John Nelson Darby. He popularized the notion through his translation of the Bible, still published today as the Darby Bible. But before him, no one had ever suggested that the Bible taught any such thing. He is kind of the inventor of the idea of the Rapture. It was not an idea that caught on at all for many decades. Most Christians thought of it as a rather kooky fringe theory for a very long time. It only began to be more widely known and believed in the 1970s because of Hal Lindsay’s influential book, The Late Great Planet Earth.

But, over the last 50 years, the idea has become quite popular, so much so that many people seem to assume that it is what all Christians believe. And so, it seems to me that it’s something that we have to deal with.

Some Problems with it

Let me say, first of all, that I do see some real problems with the notion. I honestly feel that belief in the Rapture has had a very detrimental effect on Christianity itself. When you teach people that they can expect a quick and easy escape from this world and all of its problems, it really doesn’t help people to be invested in working to make the world a better place or solving some of those problems.

And that is exactly what has developed over the last several decades among those who put emphasis on the Rapture. There has been a distinct lack of concern about problems like global warming, poverty, social justice and inequality. After all, why would you bother working on such problems if you knew that you were going to be snatched up at any moment and leave them all behind?

Christianity in Disrepute

But these are real problems that are affecting people’s lives and endangering our future. The very fact that so many Christians have such a callous disregard for any such concerns has brought Christianity itself into disrepute in our world. And, what’s more, just imagine what could be accomplished if only we could persuade all of those Christians to do what Jesus asked of his disciples and put their efforts into working on these issues. What couldn’t we accomplish together?

So, my personal opinion is that this teaching about the Rapture has done us little good. But that is just one person’s opinion. I mean, if the Bible actually does teach something, it shouldn’t matter whether we like that teaching or not, right? So, what does the Bible actually say? What is supposed to happen to believers at the end of all things?


There was a protocol in the ancient Roman Empire. It was called a parousia, which was just a Greek word that meant an appearance or a coming. When an Emperor or some other high official paid a visit to a city, everyone knew what the proper Parousia Protocol was and were careful to follow it to the letter. It was pretty simple, but no deviation was allowed.

Of course, they didn’t have instant communications back then, and so the citizens might not know that the visit was taking place. So, the first thing that happened was that the approaching emperor and his train were announced with the blast of trumpets and the cry of the imperial messengers.

In ancient cities, the dead were always buried on the extreme outskirts of the city. And so, the first citizens that the emperor always encountered were the dead ones. And so, of course, he would stop and give honour to the ancestors of the people of the city.

The Citizens Process out

By that time, the citizens of the city had managed to get organized and so they joined in a joyful procession out to meet the emperor on the outskirts. There, after greeting him with honour and sacrifice they would all turn, and the emperor would lead the parade back into the city where the parousia would be celebrated with feasting and other festivities.

Everyone knew this protocol and most had likely experienced it at least once. It would have been the social event of the year in any city that the emperor visited. But what does any of that have to do with the Rapture? Well let’s go back to our reading from a letter that was written to the church in Thessalonica.

And let’s remember that Thessalonica was the chief city of the Province of Macedonia, the seat of the governor and was situated at the crossing of two major roads. The city would have experienced many visits by emperors and high officials.

What Paul is Describing

And now, knowing all of that, reread the passage that some would take as the only biblical description of the Rapture. Paul is describing what he calls the “coming” of the Lord Jesus. And the word in your Bibles that is translated as coming, it is the Greek word parousia.

And how does Paul describe the parousia of Christ? It is announced with trumpets and the cry of messengers (or, to use the Greek word, angels). The appearing Christ then meets first with the dead believers and then the great host of living believers go out to meet and greet him.

These are exactly the familiar steps of the imperial protocol. The only things that are different is that Christ is arriving from the sky and not down the road and the dead are presumably raised back to life to meet him. But other than that, the protocol would have been immediately recognizable to the Christians in Thessalonica.

What Rapture Teaching Gets Wrong

So, what does all of this mean when it comes to the teaching of the Rapture that has been embraced by some Christians. Well, it means, first of all, that anyone who suggests that what is being described in this particular passage is an escape for believers from this world’s trials and tribulations is wrong.

Everyone knew what the next step of a parousia was and it did not include all of the citizens of the particular city being visited going off with the emperor as he immediately went back to his imperial palace in Rome! Everyone knew that the next step was for everyone, now including the ruler, to return to the city and celebrate. Whatever Paul is here teaching the Thessalonians about what will happen at the coming of the Christ, he is definitely not suggesting that they will in some way escape the world. He is promising them that their future is to be found in a renewed world.

Hope When the World Falls Apart

But the other thing that I think all of this makes clear is how Paul meant for people to understand what he was talking about. It is true that the early church lived in expectation that, at some unexpected moment, their Lord Jesus would return to set things right in the world. This was absolutely something that allowed them to keep on going and not give up hope as they lived through some very difficult times. I don’t know about you but, given some of the really difficult things we’ve seen lately in our world, I am feeling that this kind of teaching has gained a new relevance for believers today.

 And Paul is, here in this passage in his letter to the Thessalonians, actually trying to comfort the Thessalonians because they feel as if Christ’s return is just taking too long. They are losing hope because it has taken so long that people have already started dying and they are afraid those people are lost forever. And he comforts them by giving them this description of what it will be like when Christ comes. He doesn’t say when that’s going to happen, but he is promising that it will be an event that brings hope to both the living and the dead.

Paul’s Parable

But then he jumps into this description of the return of Jesus using imagery from a familiar imperial visitation protocol. I think that right there is an indication that he is not giving a literal description of what is going to happen. He is offering something more like a parable.

He is saying that the coming of Christ is something like what happens when the emperor comes to town. The point you need to take from a parable like that is not that you’re going to study it and find out in perfect detail what is going to happen and exactly what events will take place when. That’s not the point of a parable.

Jesus is Better

And so, I would suggest that anyone who wants to take this passage and use it to say that they know exactly what it going to happen in the future and when has missed the point of it. Paul is explaining to these troubled Thessalonians that Jesus is better and more reliable than any old Roman Emperor, populist or celebrity. You can count on Jesus who will not abandon anybody – living or dead.

And once you understand how trustworthy Jesus is, you don’t need to be concerned for what the future holds – don’t need to worry about the wheres and the whens.

So that is what I would take away from this passage in Thessalonians. Trust in Jesus. He doesn’t abandon anyone who trusts in him. Nor does Jesus abandon the earth and its sorrows. Neither should we.

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The Chicago Way

Posted by on Sunday, November 5th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, November 5, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Remembrance Sunday
Genesis 4:1 17, 23, 24, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

You have all heard, I am sure, about the story of Cain and Abel. It is the story of the first brothers and of the first sibling rivalry. It is the story, in the Bible, of the first time anyone tried to solve their problems with violence. It didn’t go well.

It is also, and a lot of people don’t realize this, the first time that the word sin is mentioned in the Bible. The notion of sin doesn’t come up, not even once, in the whole story of Adam and Eve and the garden. It only comes up when Cain contemplates what he is going to do to his brother Abel.

Sibling Rivalry

So anyways, you probably know the part of the story that everyone knows – how both Cain and Abel made a sacrifice to God but God (in some way that is not explained) indicated that Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable than Cain’s. And Cain was so jealous that he decided to attack his brother and killed him in the field. And so, the first sin became the first murder.

But what I am interested in today is what comes after that. God comes upon Cain and asks him where his brother is. And God knows – knows because the blood of Abel is crying out from the ground itself – what Cain has done.

Cain’s Punishment

And God punishes Cain – punishes him with exile, casting him out from the soil that sustained him as a farmer. And then Cain complains about this punishment. “My punishment is greater than I can bear!” he cries. “Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Cain is saying that his punishment will not merely be exile; it will be death. People will seek him out and try to kill him because of what he has done. But think about what that is saying for a moment.

A World Full of People

A simple, straightforward reading of the Book of Genesis would lead you to think that, at this point in the story, there are approximately three human beings on the face of the earth. There is Adam and there is Eve and they have had two sons, one of whom is now dead. That’s it.

But now Cain, the murderer of his brother seems to imagine a world full of people, many of whom are trying to kill him! I know that people often read this story of Cain and note that, at the end of it, Cain suddenly has a wife. They rightfully ask where his wife came from. It also says that he built a city, and a city does not exist without people to live in it. But even before we get to those thorny questions, we have to ask where all of these enemies come from.

A More-Than-Historical Story

All of that suggests to me that perhaps the author of the Book of Genesis is telling something other than a simple historical narrative. He is talking about something a little bigger than just the drama that has consumed one nuclear family. He is making a commentary on the human condition and the problems that have beset us all through the ages. And, because of that, I think we would do well to pay close heed to this story because I suspect that it has some important things to say to us and the challenges that we face as humanity today.

So, with that in mind, who is it that Cain is afraid, in all the great big world, is out to kill him? Is he afraid that the world is full of psychopaths who wander the globe seeking random people to kill for sport? Such people do exist, but they are hardly everywhere. And, even if they were, Cain is certainly no more at risk of such a random attack than anyone else.

Family Feud

So, who is Cain afraid is going to target him for death? I think that the answer to that question would have been obvious to ancient readers. They knew how these things worked. Cain has killed Abel and so it would have been completely expected that someone from Abel’s family or clan would target Cain for death.

And, yes, I know, there is no mention of Abel having a family or clan but, as I said, the author of this story does not seem to be concerned with such details.  He is telling a bigger story about what commonly happened in his society when somebody murdered somebody else. And what commonly happened in that world was that justice was meted out by means of family and clan through feud, vengeance and vendetta. That is what Cain is quite justifiably afraid of.

God’s Response

And so, God reassures Cain. And what does God say to set Cain’s heart at ease? God, kind of famously, says this: “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And I know how people have traditionally read that. They have understood God to be promising that, if anyone kills Cain, God will carry out the sevenfold vengeance, presumably by killing seven of that murderer’s people. And, once again, let’s just note how very populated this world seems to be.

But I want you to notice something. I want you to notice that God does not say who is going to take that sevenfold vengeance. God doesn’t say, “I’m going to do it,” just that it’s going to happen. And I would suggest to you that it would have been much more normal, in that world, to expect someone other than God to take that vengeance. The expectation was that the people from Cain’s own family or clan would take that vengeance.

The Chicago Way

There is a famous scene in the 1987 movie, The Untouchables, when Sean Connery, playing an Irish Chicago police officer, who strangely has a Scottish accent, tells Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, how to beat the gangster, Al Capone. “You wanna know how to get Capone?” Connery asks. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”

Well, that’s kind of the same thing that God is saying to Cain in this passage. He’s saying that the only way to prevent violence or murder from happening is to continually increase the level of retaliatory violence. If you always make sure that you hurt the other guy more than they have hurt you, well, that’s what’s going to prevent them from hurting you in the first place. It’s the Chicago way. God is saying that if they kill you, you just have to make sure you put seven of theirs in the morgue.

The Solution to Violence!

And so, there you have it, right? Right from the mouth of God, no less! Here we have the solution to the problem that has plagued humanity from the very beginning – what to do about violence, murder and war. Apparently, so long as you always meet violence with more violence, so long as you live according to the Chicago way, it seems as if the problem is completely solved.

And surely there could be no message better than that to celebrate on this Remembrance Sunday, that we can have the promise of peace so long as we follow the Chicago way.

Except, wait a minute. I can see a few questions percolating in a few brains out there. I think, maybe, some of you are wondering if that can really be the solution to the problem of violence in this world. Because, in many ways, is not all of human history pretty much a story of us trying to solve the problem of violence in the Chicago way? It seems to me that people have actually tried responding to violence with even more violence. I think they’ve tried that a whole lot, and I’m not exactly sure that it has worked, are you? So, is that really the end of the story?

More to the Story

No, it’s not. It’s not even the end of the story in the Book of Genesis. I know that people usually stop reading once Cain is marked and sent into exile, but that’s not the end of his story. That’s why we kept reading this morning. And I want us to note where the story ends up with Cain’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Lamech. I mean, isn’t this a wonderful opportunity to check in on this family and how they’re doing living under the Chicago Way five generations later? So, how are they doing?

We are told very little about Lamech apart from what he says one day to his two wives. But what little he says speaks volumes. “I have killed a man for wounding me,” he says, “A young man for striking me.”

And isn’t that just wonderful? Here we see that Lamech is keeping up the good old-fashioned Cain family tradition of the Chicago way. Somebody just put one of mine in the hospital so I put one of his in the morgue. That’s what he just said.

So, if he’s keeping up the tradition, all must be well, right? Violence must have been banished from the face of the earth. Well, not exactly because Lamech isn’t done.

Seventy-Sevenfold Vengeance

“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,” he goes on, “Truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” And here we see the real problem with the Chicago way. In five generations we have apparently gone from seven times vengeance to seventy-seven times vengeance. Where once it was enough to put seven of theirs in the morgue, now we are putting seventy-seven of theirs for every one of ours.

And there is the real problem with eternal vengeance. It just keeps spiralling bigger and bigger and more out of control with each new generation. Vengeance is not the solution to violence; it is what makes sure it keeps growing.

So actually, the story of Cain and Abel, far from advocating the Chicago way as the solution to violence, shows us that it leads us further and further down the path of destruction. There has got to be a better way.

A Better Way

And there is. The story of Cain and Abel does not just end five generations later with the sayings of Lamech. There is, in the Bible, an epilogue to the story, but it doesn’t come until millennia later in the Gospel of Matthew. One day, we’re told, Peter came up to Jesus and said, “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answered him and said, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

And I’m sure that you’ll notice that Peter and Jesus refer there to exactly the same numbers that appear in the Book of Genesis – 7 and then 77 times. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen by accident in the Bible. This is meant to connect the two passages and the application is pretty clear.

The story of Cain and Abel tells of violence and vengeance spinning out of control – killing more and more people each succeeding generation. It is the story of how the Chicago way doesn’t solve anything and only makes everything worse. And this passage offers the only possible antidote to that – and the antidote is spiralling mercy and forgiveness. As Sean Connery might put it, “They hurt you one time, you forgive them seventy-seven times.”

Real-World Application

And all of this, as we are all too aware, has so many real-world implications for all of us here today. The world is in the midst of a war that could all too easily spin out of control.

I have all the sympathy in the world for the people of Israel – mostly civilians – who were targeted in last month’s Hamas terrorist attack. It was horrific and unconscionable. The impulse to strike back and take a Palestinian life for an Israeli life, a wounding for a wounding is also completely human and quite understandable. But is it the solution? Does it solve the underlying issues and make the possibility of violence go away? I don’t think it can – not even (and this is likely impossible) if you manage to wipe out the entirety of Hamas leadership and infrastructure such as it is.

So, if it isn’t going to solve it, what are you left with? A continual spiral. We have already passed the point when it is seven Palestinian lives for every Israeli life lost. But, despite what God promised to Cain, that won’t end it. And it won’t end it when, five generations and so much blood after this all started, it is seventy-seven lives for every life either.

Where is Hope?

So what are we left with? Where is there hope for the future of the human race? I can only offer the answer of Jesus to Peter – the only thing that can overwhelm spiralling violence is the spiralling power of forgiveness. I don’t offer this as the easier path – it is so much harder to pursue. Nor do I suggest that it is the safer path; it isn’t. It is just, in the long run, the only path and until we find it somehow, we have come no further than Lamech sitting around and boasting to his wives about how many people he has killed for wounding him.

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Get the door, Rhoda!

Posted by on Sunday, October 29th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, October 29, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Anniversary Sunday
Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, Acts 12:1-17, Matthew 22:34-46

It was Sunday, a very important Sunday, and the church had gathered together to celebrate and to just enjoy one another’s company. But they had also come at a moment when they were feeling a great deal of anxiety for the future.

An Anxious Meeting

There were a few things that caused this anxiety. The church had once enjoyed many privileges in society. When it had met on Sunday mornings, for example, the society had once cancelled almost all other activities, giving people nothing better to do than to attend church. In addition, the society had often deferred to church leaders and largely adopted the church’s moral teachings as its own.

But many of these special advantages were no longer extended to the church these days and the loss of them, while it was not exactly a classic case of persecution, certainly felt like it to many of them. And it made them worry and fret for the future.

Leadership and Money

Another anxiety was leadership. Perhaps it was a sign of difficult times and people were just too preoccupied with paying the bills and getting by, but people just weren’t stepping forward and offering leadership and support to the church like they once did.

And then, of course, there was the other perennial worry: money. They almost hated to admit it, but it was true that the good work of the church required money to be carried out and, again, because so many seemed to struggle with the bills these days, it did not always appear when they thought it should. That also created anxiety.

A Prayer About Our Place in Society

And so, one of the members stood and began to beseech the Lord. “O Lord, we pray for the church and its many challenges. We recognize that society has turned against us, that they are trying to cancel us and that nobody even wants to play with us any…” <Loud knocking. Pause>

“As I was saying, Lord, no one even seems interested in coming into the church anymore and they have all decided that we are totally irrelevant when it comes to having anything worthwhile to say about the world’s problems. But it is they who have decided to make us irrelevant by excluding us from the conversation – by telling us that we can’t just have the conversation on our terms anymore. O Lord, why don’t you hear us when we call…” <Loud knocking. Pause>

“O my God… God, it is so hard to pray properly with all these interruptions! You see how hard it us, O Lord. Why don’t you help us?”

A Prayer for Workers

The elder sat down but, since all the church’s anxieties had hardly been expressed, another quickly stood and began to pray. “O Lord,” she said, “it is sadly true that no one wants to do the work of the church these days. They are all too busy doing other things and playing sports on Sundays. You know, there was a time… <Loud knocking. Pause> … I say there was a time when people were only too happy to volunteer their time to the church. If only you would send us people, maybe people with young families, who would be able to step forward and volunteer to do the work of the church. That would be so awesome O my… <Loud knocking.>


“Rhoda, Rhoda! Where are you? Can you please go out to that door and just tell whoever it is who won’t stop knocking that we are busy in here holding our very important prayer meeting because the church is facing many crises? Tell them to leave us in peace!”

Rhoda was the church custodian. She did a lot of the cleaning and organizing around the place. As part of her job description, she was also supposed to handle matters of security and making sure that the doors were opened when they needed to be opened and locked when they needed to be locked.

But, since she was effectively the only employee of the church, they tended to look to her for all kinds of other things. She made sure that everything was set up for important prayer meetings like this one. She often answered the phones. So, yes, of course she was the one that they asked to take care of any sort of disturbance. She was the one who had to go to the door. But, meanwhile, the good people of the church continued in their prayers.

A Prayer for Money

A third respected member of the church was now standing and praying on behalf of them all. “O Lord,” he cried, “we do rather hate to bring it up, but there is the matter of paying the bills. Money, it seems, is short and is a constant struggle. If only you would see fit to provide a little boost for the old bank account, just make it so that we don’t have to constantly worry about keeping the lights on and the heat going, that would be really nice.”

At least, the prayer went something like that. But honestly, people were kind of distracted by the disturbance at the door. They couldn’t help but listen as Rhoda’s feet shuffled towards the door. And then there was this odd semi-whispered discussion that none of them could make out the content of. They could pick up on the emotions of it though, and were surprised to hear how excited Rhoda seemed to become at the muffled responses of whomever was on the other side of the door.

Rhoda’s Announcement

Just as the latest designated pray-er wound up a very sophisticated prayer request for an excellent return on all the church’s investments, he was very annoyed to be interrupted by the sound of Rhoda running back into the sanctuary. “They’re here, they’re here!” she cried. “All of the answers to all of your prayers have been standing just outside the door and knocking all this time! Do you think I should let them in?

Well, as you can imagine, the whole church immediately erupted in outrage. “What are you doing, Rhoda? Foolish girl, don’t you know better than to interrupt our very important prayers? We are doing the important work of the church here. Let’s have a little bit of reverence and decorum! Let’s have a little bit of respect.”

Rhoda Doubles Down

But, for some reason, all their criticisms did nothing to temper Rhoda’s excitement and she only cried out more loudly that they didn’t need to pray, and that God had already answered. It took some time for them to understand what she was saying (mostly because they really didn’t want to bother listening to her) but when they finally did understand, that only enraged them all the more.

“You silly girl,” they cried, “you must be out of your mind. What do you know about prayers and the answering of prayers? You probably just saw some angel or something, and you’re not supposed to take those literally. We are the experts on that. We’ll say what the answer to prayer is, not some custodian.

And so, Rhoda left them. What was she supposed to do? She went out and met with the one who had been knocking at the door. And I guess that the last thing I heard was that they were still praying for God to save their church.

A Metaphor for the Church

I don’t know if the author of the Book of Acts realized it at the time, but I believe that in the story of Peter and Rhoda at the door, he offered us a perfect metaphor for the way that the church has often behaved through the ages.

He did, I am sure, realize just how humorous his little story was. He had to be laughing into his sleeve as he wrote it down. The sheer irony of it! The church is praying inside for something while the literal answer to their prayers is knocking at the door outside and can’t get in. And, what’s more, they don’t want to let him in because they don’t really believe that he could be there.

It is an amusing situation, but one that is meant to shine a light on the church and make it think about how it operates. This is not a story about something that happened just once. It is a story that keeps on happening and we need to learn from it.

God Saves the Church

Throughout its history, the church has been in crisis again and again. And the church has responded by praying and imploring God for salvation. And God has always sent that salvation for the church. The proof of that is that the church is still here in existence some 2000 years later. Often the salvation of the church was knocking on the door, but the church just couldn’t recognize the salvation that was out there.

The Fall of Empire

In the fifth century, for example, the Roman Empire was crumbling in the West because of devastating barbarian invasions. And the church was so tightly integrated into the Empire at that point that it felt, not only like the end of the church but the end of the world.

They prayed desperately for God to save the church, but the salvation that God sent, that was knocking at the door, was not the one they were looking for. It was the so-called barbarians themselves who proved to be the salvation as they converted in huge numbers. It changed the church in innumerable ways, but the church also found new vitality in a new culture.

The Reformation

And that pattern has repeated again and again. When the church felt threatened by reformers in the sixteenth century, of course it prayed for God to make the threat of reform go away, but the answer that God sent was new vitality through reform, both for the existing Roman Catholic Church, which was reformed at the Council of Trent and the new Reform Churches. The answer was banging on the door, and they just didn’t want to open it.


So, I can’t help but think that today, when we feel like the very survival of the church is at stake – when the forces in society seem more intent on bringing it down than ever before – we might be dealing with the same problem. Even as we pray for God to save us, we are ignoring the sound of the very answer that we are praying for as it knocks at our door.

Even more importantly, we have Rhoda’s among us, people who are aware of what is actually knocking at the door of the church out there, even as we are dismissing them, mocking them for coming to tell us who is knocking at the door.

What is Knocking?

Who may be knocking at the door today? Is it growing numbers of minorities and immigrant groups, who are looking for ways to worship God while holding onto their own cultural identity?

When Rhoda comes running back into the room shouting that God has sent many such people to be a part of the future of the church in this place, how will you respond? Will you ridicule her, tell her that she is out of her mind? And, if you do, will it be because you really believe that, or is it rather because you are not willing to accept the change that would come to the church if such people were allowed to have a voice and some power?

A New Generation

You could say much the same thing about a younger generation. Are they literally at the door of the church knocking to get in? Not very often these days. But I don’t think that is necessary because the church and the gospel have nothing to offer them. I think we have been more proactive in keeping them away in their case. The way we have treated the Rhoda’s among us – shutting down their efforts at bringing change – may have already convinced many of them that there is no place for them in the church.

Send us a Rhoda

But here is the bottom line as far as I am concerned. God cares about the church. God answers prayers – not always in the ways we want or expect, but God answers prayer. So, there is some answer to our prayer knocking at the door. God send us a Rhoda or two – someone who is not afraid to go to the door and discern who is out there. God give you the courage to become a Rhoda. Most of all, God give us all the courage and wisdom to listen to Rhoda when she speaks up!

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A Wedding Disaster of Biblical Proportions

Posted by on Sunday, October 15th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, October 15, 2023 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

Weddings are supposed to be the happiest of all occasions, but we all know that they can sometimes be fraught affairs. They are high-stress events, and this can bring out the worst in people. Couples may clash over the details. They may find themselves in arguments with their future in-laws. Families, being complicated as they are, can often become very hurtful to one another. We’ve all heard stories of weddings that went very wrong.

A Strange Wedding

But what if I were to tell you a story of a wedding that was organized entirely by the groom’s father? What’s more, this father seems to have had absolutely no regard for the wishes of his son, or the bride and what she might like, that doesn’t even come up at all.

So, it already sounds like that wedding is not going to go very well, doesn’t it? Well, you have no idea! This wedding is so bad, that even before it begins, hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, will die because of it.

How Wrong It Goes

Messengers who are sent out with the invitations will be tortured and murdered. Whole cities will be attacked and burned to the ground. But, despite all this slaughter, is the wedding called off? Is it even postponed? Not at all. The guest list is updated, and the guests arrive, once again with absolutely no attention being paid to the bride or the groom.

Then before the wedding feast even begins, one of the wedding guests finds himself being bound hand and foot and cast into the most disturbing place imaginable. And this is supposed to be a joyful celebration of two people pledging their love? What would you think of such a story?

Even more important, where would you think to find such a story? In the latest season of the wedding disaster reality television series, Bridezillas? Would you expect to find it in a book written by George R.R. Martin? No, this incredibly disastrous wedding is described in the Bible.

Luke’s Version

Jesus once told a parable about a great feast. This parable is found in two different gospels – Matthew and Luke. But Luke’s version of the parable has always been more popular. In Luke, the story is pretty straightforward. A man organizes a great meal – not a wedding, just a feast – and invites some friends.

But the guests can’t come when the meal is ready. They offer their various excuses, but they can’t make it. And so, the host, not wanting all his food to go to waste, decides to fill his banqueting hall with all the outsiders of society instead – the poor, the blind and the lame.

That is it, that’s the whole story in the Gospel of Luke. Nobody gets murdered, no cities are burned to the ground, nobody gets bound hand and foot and left to die. It’s kind of dull by comparison when you think of it. But I think that’s the parable that most people remember. And when they read the version of the parable in the Gospel of Matthew, the murder wedding version, the impression of the simpler parable is so strong that I think we almost skip over all of the death and destruction.

A Twist Ending

So, what is really going on here, and why do we have such a radically more violent version of the parable in the Gospel of Matthew?

It seems to me that there is no question that Jesus told a parable that had an important twist ending. He wanted to put into people’s minds a very particular image of the kingdom of God – an image that made a point of including all the marginal outcasts, the people who lived on the fringes of society and who everyone else despised. And, at the same time, he wanted to put forward the image of a kingdom where the elites, the privileged and the hyper-religious missed out.

But the problem was that that kind of thing simply didn’t happen in his world, just like it doesn’t in ours. Whenever anything nice happens, we all know, it is the rich and the privileged who get the front row seats while the people who live on the fringe are left out in the cold. And so, Jesus had to come up with a somewhat convoluted tale of a banquet that ended with a ridiculous situation where everything normal was all topsy-turvy.

People Struggled with the Ending

And I suspect that this crazy image of the kingdom of God that Jesus was trying to get across was really hard for people to get their heads around. I’m sure they were constantly saying things like, “Jesus doesn’t really mean that those people who live on the fringes are going to have all the best seats in the kingdom of God, does he?” So, they struggled with this story and retold it to try and make it make sense for them.

Luke Makes Sense of it

For the writer of the Gospel of Luke, I guess it was enough for him to understand the story by realizing that the wealthy and important people of this world often have so many demands on their time and attention. “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it… I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out… I have just been married...” (Luke 14:18-20) These were the kinds of busy demands that were put on wealthy people’s time. So, it kind of made sense to Luke that, amid all the busyness of their important lives, they might fail to notice the priorities of the kingdom of God.

Meanwhile, the poor and marginalized folks, as far as Luke knew anyway, had nothing but time to pursue the kingdom’s goals, so that helped him to understand how they might end up in preferred positions in the kingdom.

So that was how Luke presented the parable of Jesus; it made sense to him that way. And he wasn’t wrong in the interpretation. That was certainly a good part of what Jesus was trying to say about how the rich and the poor responded differently to the challenge of the kingdom of God.

Matthew’s Different Approach

But there is clearly something a little bit different going on in Matthew’s version of the parable. I think, in fact, that he might have understood some of the deeper meaning of the parable. In Matthew, the reason why the elites don’t make it into the kingdom isn’t because they are too busy with other matters.

They aren’t part of it because they find the very idea of the kingdom of God – a kingdom where they don’t get to be in charge – to be ridiculous. “But they made light of it and went away,” is their initial response. They mock the very idea and find it silly!

But then, when, despite their mockery of the ideals of the kingdom, it persists, the elites soon turn violent. “While the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them,” it says.

A Radical Vision

This is making a very important point about Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God. It is not just a nice idea. It is not just some idyllic vision of a world that is different and that includes outsiders and marginalized people. It is a threat because it calls into question the existing world order. And the powerful of this world do not take such threats lightly.

Where Are We in this Parable?

Where are we, at this particular moment in time, in terms of this parable? I think that we are somewhere between the mockery and the threat of violence. At least this is how I’ve been experiencing it.

We seemed to have been getting someplace in our society in terms of including some marginalized people. Indigenous people, people of colour, sexual and gender minorities were at least starting to get a voice within the larger society. A few years ago, I would have said that that was where we were going, and it seemed to promise something for the future.

But now we have seen a growing backlash to such ideas. And it started, just like in Jesus’ parable, with mockery. People made fun of what they called wokeness and the woke agenda as if there were something foolish about listening to minority groups and their concerns. Is the next step in terms of maintaining the privileges of certain groups and the status quo going to be violence against those who are different? This parable certainly suggests that that is where it could go next, and it certainly does sometimes feel that way.

In any case, I think that that is why Matthew’s version of this parable takes such a dark and bloody turn. He seems to recognize the inherent threat of the kingdom of God to the ways of this world and he understands how the world will react.

An Odd Ending

But there is one more aspect of Matthew’s version of the parable that has always puzzled me – a part that is completely absent from Luke’s version of the parable. It is the part at the end when the banqueting hall is filled with all the misfits, outsiders and despised people in a perfect vision of the nature of the kingdom of God.

But one of the guests, despite having been accepted and given a place as he was, has decided not to wear the wedding garment that has been provided for him. For this reason, he is thrown out of the feast and into the outer darkness.

While the rest of the parable seems to be about how the world at large reacts to the nature of the kingdom of God, this part seems to be directed specifically at the church. The church, after all, is supposed to be a reflection, however partial, of the true nature of the kingdom of God. It is to be a place where all are welcome regardless of who they are because we all recognize that we are outsiders and marginalized when it comes to living up to God’s righteousness.

The Wedding Garments

The wedding garments seem to represent the basis upon which we can all claim to have a place in the church. They represent the righteousness of God that is imparted to us, not because we have earned it, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

But unfortunately, we sometimes forget the basis upon which we gained entry to the church. We can become proud and start to think ourselves better than others who have not been around so long. We can become judgmental of those who do not fit in. We can become angry or resentful at those who threaten our comfortable status quo within the church.

That is when we take off the robe of righteousness that has been given to us because we begin to feel as if we have earned our place by our own righteousness. That mistake is reflected in the foolish guest at the end of the parable.

What we do to Ourselves

I’m not saying that God is going to bind us hand and foot and cast us out when that happens. I don’t think God treats us like that. But, in many ways that is what we end up doing to ourselves when we fall into such a state of being. We exile ourselves from the truth of the kingdom. That is what the end of the parable warns us against.

So, this parable, particularly as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew, tells us two important things about the kingdom of God. First, it reminds us that its inclusive vision – welcoming and valuing all the outcasts and rejects of society, all the ones that we struggle to accept – is a threat to this world’s order. The world reacts with mockery and ultimately with violence to such a threat.

Living in the Reality of the Kingdom

But second, this parable is there to remind us of who we are supposed to be as followers of Christ. We are to be those who learn to live in the reality of the kingdom despite the world’s rejection of it. We do so because we recognize our own unworthiness and do not turn away from our own failings. We welcome the robe of righteousness given to us by Christ because we know it is a gift.

And having so freely received that gift, we are empowered to exercise that same grace towards others – welcoming them as they are. Valuing them even if the world despises them. Making a place for those whom the world passes over. For we, in our own small way when we gather, are to live out that reality of God’s kingdom and show the world that it is possible.

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…and will have compassion on his suffering ones

Posted by on Sunday, October 8th, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, 8 October, 2023 © Scott McAndless – Harvest Thanksgiving
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Isaiah 49:8-13, Matthew 21:33-46

In our plan for this year, I committed myself to spending some time preaching during this month of October about valuing and including people in the church, especially people who are different from us.

I started out last week by focussing on how Jesus challenged the religious folk of his day by telling them that the tax collectors and prostitutes would be ahead of them in the kingdom of God. I suggested that Jesus would likely seek to challenge us in the same way.

Not Letting Myself off the Hook

 But, even as I preached that last week, I recognized that I couldn’t afford to let myself off the hook too easily. As I said, Jesus would challenge each one of us individually to think about welcoming and valuing the very people whom we would most struggle to do that for. So, who would be that person for me?

I think I am a fairly empathetic person. I do not quickly judge many of the people who are easily rejected by others. Though I may have some trouble with the moral choices people have made, I am usually quick to understand that they may have some good reasons – or at least some good excuses – for how they have chosen to act. I know that the world can be a hard place and that many people are just doing their best to find themselves and make their way.

I don’t say this to suggest that I am better or less judgemental than other people – I’m not. It’s just that, because of my own personal backstory, I tend to judge a bit differently from some people. And there are people that I do struggle with.

Who I Struggle with

Over the last several years, we have seen the growth of a certain group of people who I do struggle with valuing and welcoming. I suspect that some of you do too. Since about 2016 and then accelerating greatly after 2020, we see more and more people in our society who get caught up in conspiracy theories. Now, I remember a time when conspiracy theories were just these harmless little hobbies that sometimes people got caught up in.

But more recently, many of them have taken a turn in a very dangerous direction. Today, as a result of the proliferation of such theories, people don’t just believe untrue things, they believe some very dangerously untrue things.

Conspiracy Theories

You are probably familiar enough with these theories, but just to give a few examples, you have people today who believe that when they give you a COVID vaccine, they inject you with a microchip, who believe that they are putting litter boxes for students in school bathrooms, that hospitals in Canada perform genital reassignment surgery on children, that 15 minutes cities are a nefarious plot to control everywhere you go instead of a city planning idea that has been around for ages, and the list goes on and on.

These conspiracy theories, and many others like them, are quite untrue. It can be demonstrated very easily that they are untrue. But people believe them.

When False Ideas Cause Harm

And, again, I don’t really have a problem if people believe things that aren’t true, so long as they don’t do anybody any harm. But many of these conspiracy theories are starting to do harm in various ways. We see them being used to target and marginalize vulnerable people. We see it causing the deadly resurgence of once nearly eradicated diseases like measles. We see some of these conspiracy theories leading people down paths toward dangerous radicalism.

I Struggle

So, yes, I will say it. I do sometimes struggle in terms of valuing and accepting people who get caught up in conspiracy theories. I have had, at times, people come into this church and talk to me. It hasn’t really happened on Sunday mornings but on other days of the week.

They seem like very nice people, and we can chat contentedly for a while. They might even show interest in the life of the church. And, of course, I will invite them to come and visit us on a Sunday morning. But then we get into discussing some conspiracy theory that they are invested in.

When they bring it up, I might gently correct them and say that some point they have raised is simply not true. I don’t do it in a confronting way, I just want to explain that I don’t necessarily agree with them. The conversations have ended cordially.

But I will confess that, once the conversation is over, I often leave it with the inner desire that they don’t show up to church, that they don’t start sharing their conspiracy theories among us. I fear it might cause some harm.

So, there is a real question about how we can relate to and accept those who do get caught up in various conspiracy theories. How can we accept them, love them and value them for who they are?

A Crisis in Ancient Judah

This morning we read a portion of the Book of Isaiah from the forty-ninth chapter. I think it is a passage that can greatly help us navigate our present moment. It was written at a time when the nation of Judah was coming out of a series of disasters, and the hard times were hardly over.

They were returning from a devastating time of exile, trying to put their lives back together and dealing with ongoing crises like out-of-control inflation and attacks on their sovereignty by hostile nations. It reminds me a lot of the kinds of challenges that we are dealing with today.

And so, you can well imagine that a lot of the people were deeply traumatized by everything that they had gone through and, like always happens under such circumstances, they were probably not dealing with it very well. Some of them probably even got caught up in conspiracy theories about the governor or some of the surrounding nations. But what we have in this passage is God’s response to everything that the people were going through at that difficult moment.

God’s Response

This is the response of God that particularly strikes me in this passage: “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; Break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his suffering ones.”

Think of what that is saying. In times of change and uncertainty, how we often react is that we start to call for everyone to agree or get on the same page. We demand that nobody stir things up with their unreasonable demands or conspiracy theories. God does none of that. God’s response is comfort and compassion for the afflicted and suffering.

Learning Compassion

And if we want to find joy and hope in our uncertain times, we must follow God’s example. And so, I am working on learning some compassion for the conspiracy theorists among us. And I do believe we can find it.

Yes, I know that many of the things that some people believe are simply untrue and potentially very dangerous, but I am also coming to understand the suffering that has fed such beliefs.


Let’s take vaccines, for example. Everything I have read has convinced me that the COVID-19 vaccines have been safe and effective, but I am also learning some compassion for those who hesitate to take them. I don’t necessarily think that industry and government were always as transparent as they should have been and that quite understandably did not inspire trust in some.

I think that we all had a hand in downplaying and dismissing risks when it probably would have been more honest to speak of some relative risks and put them in the context of the greater risk of getting the disease. We promised too much in terms of protection and when our promises didn’t quite live up to the hype, yes, some people understandably lost faith in the system.

Distrust of Corporations

Does that mean that the pharmaceutical companies were injecting us with microchips and the government had an insidious plan to implement social control? No. The beliefs that some have embraced are not literally true, but there is a certain sense in which they are emotionally connected to some of the things that are truly wrong with our systems and their deep dysfunction.

It is true that pharmaceutical companies are more concerned with their own profits than they are with public health, that they are doing things like investing way more money into stock buybacks (which only benefit shareholders) than they are into researching life-saving drugs, for example.

Erosion of Freedom

It is true that our individual freedoms are being eroded and that social control is growing, it’s just that it is not necessarily being carried out by shadowy government entities so much as it is the stated goal of some of our largest and most powerful corporations.

Rapid Pace of Change

Many of the other conspiracy theories that we hear are connected to the rapid pace of change within our society – change that is understandably hard for some people to deal with.

If people are going around and saying that schools are putting out litter boxes for students and encouraging students to change their genders on whims, they are of course wrong on the facts of the matter.

When they say that genital surgery is available to children in Canada, they likely know nothing about actual medical policy. And it is hugely problematic because those kinds of beliefs are putting very vulnerable people at risk – in particular, kids who dare not be open with their parents about the things that they are struggling with because they know that it will lead to their total rejection.

Acknowledgement Matters

But, at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that it helps anybody to fail to acknowledge the things that people are feeling about how the world is changing, how old certainties and old binaries that once made things seem so simple, are fading away. And, yes, it is true that the old certainties and binaries were never as simple as they appeared to be – it was just that we didn’t even let people talk about that complexity – but now it has become so confusing to many people. We need to find ways to acknowledge what people are feeling without compromising in terms of protecting vulnerable people.

And I’m not entirely sure how we can accomplish that, but I know it has to begin with some basic compassion for everyone who has suffered.

Increased Polarization

Over the last several years, our society has become increasingly polarized. It’s not just that people disagree; people have always disagreed. It’s that we seem to have decided that we cannot even communicate anymore because we do not see things in the same way. I am appalled at some of the conspiracy theories that people believe, especially when they are used to justify hateful actions and attitudes.

Legitimate Feelings

But at the same time, I do think that many who have fallen down such rabbit holes have done so because they are dealing with a feeling that is quite legitimate – the feeling that things are not right in our society.

And when we don’t allow people to express that feeling, when we shut down all criticism of how things are, people will look around to find someone who will take seriously what they are feeling. And often that means that they will take refuge with conspiracy theorists because they are the only ones who will validate what they are feeling.

But if we can learn some compassion for what people are feeling, I’d like to think that we could short circuit some of that. Compassion, by the way, does not mean feeling sorry for people. That is just condescension. It means actually listening to people where they are and respecting them for who they are. And, if anyplace, the church should be a place where that kind of compassion is found.

No Easy Solutions

I don’t really have any easy solutions to any of this. I’m sure that most of us do encounter people who believe things that we have a hard time with. But perhaps we can appreciate what they are feeling – that there are some things that are seriously wrong with our society.

We seem to be so afraid of some people’s unease about how the world is that we drive them away and into the arms of others. But Jesus knew that all was not right with the world – that is why he came to save it and why he proposed the alternate reality of the kingdom of God.

There is supposed to be a place for everyone in the church – a place where we can bring our real fears, real worries and real concerns. Our feelings should be validated here, and nobody’s feelings should just be dismissed. I can’t help but feel that if we can find the compassion to allow that to happen here, things will begin to change for the better.

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Two Men Went to Church

Posted by on Sunday, October 1st, 2023 in Minister, News

Hespeler, October 1, 2023 © Scott McAndless – World Communion
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

In the gospels we are told that, when Jesus went down to Jerusalem for what turned out to be the last week of his life, he spent a great deal of time in and around the temple being challenged by various religious authorities. They would come up to him with these impossible questions, questions like, “Should we pay taxes to the emperor?” or “Who would be the husband of a woman married seven times in the afterlife?”

Looking to Trap Him

They didn’t really ask because they were sincerely looking for an answer to these conundrums. They were asking because they were sure that he would not be able to answer or that he would a mistake in his answer. They wanted to catch him, to put him in his place and show themselves as smarter than him. But, in a stunning display of wisdom and cleverness, he came up with the perfect answer every time, often putting them in their place instead.

But that long series of challenges finally comes to an end in the reading that we had this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. And what an end it is! In this passage, Jesus finally turns the tables on all his challengers. They tried to burn him, and he gives them third degree burns instead.

Jesus Turns the Tables

He does that first of all with a question about John the Baptist that he knows they cannot answer. He asks them whether John’s teaching and baptism came from God or human sources. It’s the same kind of strategy that they had tried against him with the tax question. No matter what they reply, they know that they will get in trouble. But where Jesus was smart enough to get out of their trap, they aren’t. They just have to admit that they don’t know and do so in front of everybody! Man, do you need some ice for that burn?

But it is what Jesus says after that that particularly interests me here today. He ends this whole series of stories with a real challenge that I do not think is only directed at his immediate antagonists. I suspect that this one is directed at us as well.

A Tale of Two Sons

He does it – and isn’t this typical of Jesus – by telling a story. It is a story about two sons that ends with a question: Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the thing is that that is not even a difficult question to answer. The answer is obvious, and they get it right away. The first son actually did something that his father asked and the second one didn’t. It is clear that the first one did the will of his father, and they immediately say so.

But of course – and this is also typical of Jesus – there is a complication in the story. Because it turns out that the second son may not have done what his father asked, but he did say the right thing. He didn’t have the reality of correct action, but he did have the appearance of it. He may not have had the substance of obedience, but he had the form.

Appearance and Reality

And the problem is that, in our world, we tend to put more importance on saying the right thing than doing the right thing. We are more interested in appearance than reality and we applaud form over substance. For proof of that, just look at the way that we celebrate celebrities and how we respond to the promises and platitudes of politicians. They are all about form and appearance and saying the right thing, rarely about substance, reality and doing the right thing.

And so, Jesus is calling out the shallowness of his challengers with this little story. He is letting them know, in particular, that they are rejecting some people, treating them as less valuable and important than them and they are doing it for unimportant and surface reasons.

Let the Story Challenge You

You should not listen to this story without allowing it to challenge you to rethink how you – probably without even thinking about it – judge and reject other people for reasons that are unimportant and based merely on appearances and surfaces.

But perhaps the story doesn’t have quite the impact on us as it did on the people in Jesus’ time. After all, not too many parents today expect their children to do work in the fields for them. So perhaps we need to update the story to something that we can relate to a little easier.

Perfect Church Attender?

So, what if Jesus told the story like this: two men went to church on a Sunday? The first man, a very distinguished gentleman, was perfectly behaved. He stood when everyone else stood and then sat when he was supposed to. When there were hymns to be sung, he stood and held the hymn book at a perfect 30⁰ angle and mouthed the words in perfect sync with everyone else – not actually singing, of course, so it’s not to draw any attention to himself.

When the service was over, he politely greeted a few people and shook a few hands and left. After leaving, he never said anything about where he had spent his Sunday morning hour to a single soul and did his best to make sure that nothing that had been said or sung during the worship service had an impact on the way that he lived his life.

The Social Media Guy

When the second man entered into the church, the first thing he did was take out his cell phone and post where he was on social media. Right before the start, he was still taking a few selfies of himself in front of the organ pipes and one of the stained-glass windows that he tagged as being particularly “rad.”  He then rushed to his seat as the service began to film the people singing the opening hymn.

The people sitting near him particularly noticed how he was constantly looking down at his phone while the preacher was preaching. They tisked to one another behind his back, but I don’t think that they noticed that he was posting some of his favourite quotes from the sermon on his twitter feed as he listened.

When the service was over, he tried to speak to practically everyone who was there, asking them (most intrusively some of them thought) how they were going to put the Gospel lesson of the day in practice over the next week. When he finally left (much to the relief of the woman who had the job of locking up for the day), he said that it was because he had to go and do what the Gospel had said.

Who did the Will of Jesus?

So, let me ask you, which of those two did the will of his lord and saviour Jesus? The answer should be clear, right? Obviously, it has got to be the one who shared his experience of the word of God and who tried his best to live by it. That’s exactly what Jesus was looking for in a disciple.

But who, do you suppose, would we be more inclined to see as a good Christian? Most churches I have known would be much more inclined to recognize the first man as a good Christian than the second.

Most churches seem to frown on the use of cell phones during the service, some outright banning them, in an effort to protect the reverence of the occasion. And most churches that I have known have struggled with finding a place for anyone who challenges the way that things have always been done or disturbs the status quo.

Do We Focus on the Wrong Things?

But when we think that way, what are we focussing on, on surface matters or on what is actually going on in someone’s heart? And it goes deeper than that. Our obsessions with maintaining proper reverence in worship may be killing us.

We’re living in an age, after all, when information does not spread like it once did. All of the ways in which people once became involved in churches – by seeking them out when they moved into town or when they came to some transition in their life – don’t really work in the same way anymore.

Most people (and especially younger people) make their first contact with churches in the same way that they connect with most things: online, and especially through social media. And, while churches are creating more and more content in digital format these days, members seem hesitant to share that content with people outside the church. Yes, we could probably learn a great deal from the second worshipper in my story. The question is, will we?

A Bigger Challenge

So, Jesus challenges his opponents to rethink how they focus on the things that don’t matter to God – the surface things – when they judge other people. But if you think he would let them off easy with just that challenge, you’ve got another think coming. What he says next really must have hit them hard.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it you did not change your minds and believe him.’”

The Worst of the Worst!

And I would just love to have been there to see how they squirmed when he said that to them. He just named the two groups of people who, as far as they were concerned, were the worst members of their society. For them, a tax collector was the worst thing that a man could be because he collaborated with the hated Roman occupiers. And a prostitute was the worst thing that a woman could be because of what she trafficked in. And yet Jesus has just said to them that these very people will proceed them when it comes to entry into God’s kingdom when it arrives.

There is no question that Jesus made this statement in a way that was calculated to upset his listeners. He wanted to disturb them with the very idea that the people that they thought were unacceptable were completely acceptable to God, certainly more acceptable than them. And that raises the question of how we ought to read this saying of Jesus today.

Tax Collectors and Prostitutes for Us

We, obviously, would not have the same reaction to the phrase “tax collector” that they would have had. We might all have various reactions to people who are employed at Revenue Canada. I realize that many of us do not really enjoy paying our taxes. But we do not think that there is anything essentially morally objectionable about people just because they work for that agency.

Some of us might have a negative reaction to the idea of sex workers, but even there, we today tend to be more sympathetic to people who are employed in that industry than people were in Jesus’ day. We are a bit more inclined to get upset at those who purchase their services or profit from them than the workers themselves.

Would Jesus let Us off the Hook?

So, the literal words to his opponents here, certainly do not have the same emotional impact on us today that they did on the original crowd. But I’m just warning you that I don’t think that we should let ourselves off the hook because of that. If Jesus were among us today, he certainly wouldn’t do that for us.

No, the Jesus that we encounter in the scriptures would probably put his finger on the very group of people that each and every one of us would be most scandalized to think that they might be ahead of us in the kingdom of God.

What Might Jesus Say?

There are certainly some Christians today in our world that I am pretty sure Jesus would look straight in the eye and say to them, “You know, the people in the LGBTQ community are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you because they choose to be true to who I created them to be, even at great cost.” And then he would step back and watch as they sputtered and complained and protested about their own righteousness. That was exactly the spot that Jesus loved to put people in.

But, at the same time, I also know that Jesus wouldn’t be about to let those Christians, and there are many of them, who don’t have issues accepting people in the LGBTQ community off the hook. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus went up to them and said, “You know, all of those people who get caught up in conspiracy theories around vaccines and election fraud and the World Economic Forum? They will be ahead of you in the kingdom of God, not necessarily because they believe all the right things, mind you, but because they have at least realized just how messed up the world’s system is.”

Equal Opportunity Offender

Jesus, you see, was an equal opportunity offender. He was always ready to say the thing that would shake you into understanding that he and God were much more open to accept someone different than you are. And, though I suppose we’ll never quite catch up to Jesus and God by being that accepting, never forget that he told these parables and said these things to push us in that direction.

Who are the last people you could imagine getting into the kingdom of God before you? Well, today, with this scripture, Jesus is giving you a little bit of an elbow and whispering into your ear. “Hey, did you know that that person is actually ahead of you in line for God’s kingdom?” And he may leave you to figure out why that is, but the main reason is that God’s grace is always much bigger than our wildest imaginations.

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