Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

An Origin Story

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

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

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

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

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

An origin story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grateful

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Posted by on Monday, September 23rd, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 22 September 2019 © Scott McAndless
            Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
      Here is some very good, very wise advice from the First Letter of Timothy. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Yes, that seems very sensible. There are powerful people in this world, politicians, corporations, power brokers, and if you are smart, if you want to choose to have a good and quiet and peaceable life you are better off not challenging them, but rather seeking their blessing and, above all, letting them have their way.
      We have had a perfect illustration of this principle on display for us in Hong Kong for many weeks now. The greatest political power in Hong Kong is the government of the People’s Republic of China. So, what do you do if you want to have a quiet and peaceable life in Hong Kong? Well, I’ll tell you what you don’t do. The very last thing you do is poke China with a great big stick which is basically what the people of Hong Kong have been doing for weeks now. And the results have been exactly what 1stTimothy warned against and life in Hong Kong has been anything but peaceable.
      So it is true what it says, but at the same time, I think there must be more we need to take into account because, of course, there are some good reasons for why the people of Hong Kong have done what they’ve been doing. They are concerned and fearful for what China might do. They see injustice that needs to be resisted now, and really don’t feel as if they have much choice.

      And that is the problem. As a general practice, not resisting and just praying for the people who have power seems like a good policy that will lead to life, but there are times and circumstances where a different approach definitely needs to be taken. Sure, it is great when powerful people are good or, at least competent. But what do you do when they are openly evil or criminally incompetent? Without naming any names of any particular politicians (because I know that you are all thinking of particular names yourselves), this seems to have become a very pressing issue of our times. Even in Canada with its long tradition of stable government, there are many things that are making people very nervous about leadership in the midst of a hyper partisan election season.
      Fortunately, the First Letter to Timothy is not the only biblical advice that we have to go on when faced with such dire situations. We read a passage from the Book of Amos this morning where the prophet is bold to take on the rich and powerful people of his day for the ways in which they make themselves rich at the expense of the poorest people in society. He doesn’t just pray for them, he criticizes them. You might even say he gives them hell. So clearly there is more to what the Bible has to say about dealing with powerful people.
      These two competing passages in the Bible kind of leave us in a difficult position. Often the Bible seems to be telling us that we should just support and pray for the people who are in charge, and at other times it encourages us to challenge them, particularly when they go wrong or do evil. So which message should we listen to? How do we figure out how we should act to live a truly abundant life?
      Well, as usual, Jesus comes to our rescue, and he does it in one of the most surprising ways possible with the rather bizarre parable that we read from the Gospel of Luke this morning. Now, if you are like most people, you will read this parable of Jesus and you will just say, “huh?” what on earth is going on in this story.
      We have a manager, somebody who works for and takes care of the financial affairs of his boss or master. Except, he is not a good worker. He is a bad manager who does a bad job and he is about to get fired because of it. This is the hero of Jesus’ story. And, when he finds out that he’s about to be fired, this bad employee comes up with a completely self-centered plot. He doesn’t steal from his boss, not exactly. But he calls in his boss’s clients and tells them that they can write down the debts that they owe him. That, in case you’re not clear on the point, is a felony. It is a criminal act and, once again, this guy is the hero of Jesus’ story? Jesus praises the guy, and indeed the guy’s own boss praises him as well. And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly,” Jesus says.
      So, what are we supposed to do with this strange parable of Jesus? How can we take it and apply it to our lives today, because I am telling you that none of you better take the fact that I am preaching on this parable today and say that I told you that it is okay for anybody to commit financial fraud. That is exactly the danger that comes with interpreting a passage like this outside of its historical context. We have to read it in its context, so what is the context?
      Well, there is something in this parable that we don’t even notice but that would have really bothered the people who first heard Jesus tell it. It says that the master in the story had many debtors. We read that and think, “No big deal,” because debt is a normal part of life and business for us. You need to understand that when Jesus said that word, debtor, it would have set off alarm bells in the crowd. Lending anything at interest at that time was illegal. It was contrary to the law of Moses and anyone who ran a business where he had multiple debtors would have immediately been regarded with suspicion for breaking that law.
      Now, I understand that that makes absolutely no sense to us. Our modern economy is actually structured around debt and the paying of interest. Banks and most businesses could not function without it and our modern economy would likely collapse if we followed that Old Testament law and outlawed the charging of interest. But the people in Old Testament times and even in the time of Jesus lived under a very different economic system. In their world, people didn’t borrow to do things like start businesses or purchase property. Those weren’t even options. The only reason why you would borrow in that world was because you were starving and in dire straits and it was considered to be extremely unethical to charge interest in that kind of situation.
      So that was the state of the law: lending at interest was illegal. But, as you can imagine, there were people, like the master in Jesus’ story, who still sought to profit by lending. So, what do powerful and wealthy people do when they see an opportunity to make money but the law gets in the way? Do they just shrug their shoulders and say, oh well, I guess I just can’t do it? Some do, but you know that there are always some who find a way. And usually the way that you find has to do with record-keeping.
      If it is illegal to charge somebody interest, and somebody borrows from you, are you going to get your client to write down in your ledger book, “I, Samuel son of Bartholomew owe Scott son of William 80 containers of wheat plus 25% annual interest”? Of course not. You’re not going to write that because you will have now created a record of your illegal activity. Rich people don’t get rich by being stupid so they didn’t do that.
      But, of course, you still need records of what people owe you. So what do you do? You simply get your debtor to write down, “I, Samuel son of Bartholomew owe Scott son of William 100 containers of wheat in one year,” but you only give them 80 containers of wheat.
      And that is what happened in Jesus’ world. Everyone knew that it happened and everyone understood how it worked. But the wealthy people who were in charge got away with it because there was no proof. Now, I know that it might sound a bit like I’m saying that powerful and wealthy people are all criminals or that they are naturally unethical. Of course, that is not true. I honestly don’t think that they are anymore or any less ethical than any other segment of the population. But one thing has always been true and it’s still true today. Rich and powerful people who are unethical get away with it way more often than anyone else.
      So, if you understand all of that, this parable of Jesus suddenly sounds very different. Everybody understood what Jesus was saying. When the unscrupulous manager called in the debtors and told them to change the amount that they owed on the record, he was actually deducting the interest. He is actually making right what was contrary to the law. And it’s kind of interesting if you do the math. In the case of the wheat, he removed 25% interest, which is certainly bad enough. I mean, that is in the area of what you would get from a payday loan company these days. Don’t ever go to a payday loan company! But in the case of the olive oil, the interest rate is actually 100%! That is so clearly wrong that I imagine the people in the crowd gasped when Jesus said it.
      And that is why the crooked manager got away with it. His master could hardly report him for what he did because that would mean admitting that he had broken the law in the first place. In fact, as Jesus says, he had to praise him. I can just imagine the press conference: “I’d like to thank my manager for drawing my attention to the errors made in my accounts where the amounts that people owed were inflated for some unexplained reason. The people responsible for this mistake will be found and fired.” He didn’t want to say that, he had to say it.
      It also explains, of course, how Jesus can portray this manager as a kind of hero. It’s not because his actions are all right but because his self-centered actions nevertheless resulted in some justice. What he had the people write down was what was right according to Jesus and corrected the injustice committed by the master.
      Now, the application of this parable can be a little bit tricky. As I said, I don’t want anyone to take this parable as saying that it’s okay for anyone to commit financial fraud. I don’t think that was ever the intention. At the same time, I don’t think that a direct application of the morality of Jesus’ time to today is very helpful either. Just because the charging of interest was immoral in the economy of Jesus’ world, doesn’t mean that there is not a legitimate place for it today.
      No, I think that you need to be a little more subtle when applying this one. The specific actions taken by the crooked steward are not really something to be followed literally. I think it’s more of a case of Jesus speaking to the people and saying, “Look, things are pretty messed up in our world. I mean, when you have people being charged 100% interest on olive oil, you’ve got problems. But look here,” he’s saying, “here’s some justice that got done maybe despite the intentions of everyone involved. Isn’t God amazing?” That’s what Jesus was saying.
      But even more important than that, Jesus is saying that there are ways to write down what’s right. Maybe the rich and powerful people hold all the cards. Maybe you can’t challenge them directly. Maybe the wise thing to do is to show that outward support and pray for them. But maybe God will also send you opportunities to act for justice, to write down what’s right, and you should take them when they come. I mean, look what a crooked, conniving and self-centered steward was able to accomplish. Now, what do you think might happen when the children of light find their ways to work behind the scenes to write down what’s right.
      Choose life; choose justice. The two don’t have to be at odds with each other.
   
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Hello… 911?

Posted by on Sunday, September 15th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 15 September, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
H
ello, 911 emergency? Yes, I need assistance right away. No, there’s nothing happening right here, but it’s my neighbour. He has all kinds of people over at his house. They are noisy. They are dancing and singing and having a great time. It’s just not right! No, I know it’s not too late and the noise isn’t really disturbing anyone, it’s not that.
      No, it’s not that I wasn’t invited either. In fact, my neighbour came over here and practically begged me to come to the party. It was so embarrassing. “I lost my little lamb” he said. “It wandered far over hill and dale and made some pretty bad decisions – hanging out with wolves and lions and the like. It was a very foolish little lamb and it made me worry no end. I had to abandon the whole rest of the flock, just leave it out there in the wilderness, and search high and low, but I finally found it. I brought it home and now it’s safe. So I’m getting together with a few of my friends and neighbours and we’re just going to celebrate. I mean, I’m so happy to have my lamb back. So, will you come and join us in our revelries?”
      Yes, that’s right. He wanted me to join in a celebration of what, as far as I’m concerned, is a wayward black sheep. Oh, I’ve heard the rumours about that lamb. They say that it got hooked on oxycontin and ended up shooting up in alleyways. There are also rumours that it got involved in some strange sex cult and did unspeakable things. In fact, the more my friends and I talk about it on Facebook, the more stories I hear about the terrible things that it did.
      And it’s just not right. Back in my day, we didn’t celebrate the wandering sheep. We didn’t throw parties for the sheep that went off and got involved in bad things, who got hooked on drugs and video games and easy sex. We discouraged that kind of thing! We made sure that we never let anybody forget how guilty they were for what they did wrong. We reminded them that they should be ashamed. And yet here they are celebrating bad behaviour.
      Has that lamb shown any evidence that it recognizes what it did wrong or that it can see the pain that it put other people through? Does it even recognize how much it has cost the public security system that I help pay for? Worst of all, have we any reason whatsoever to expect that, now that it has been returned home safe and sound, it won’t go off wandering once again tomorrow or maybe the next day. And with all this understood, my foolish neighbour and his stupid friends are whooping it up and having a grand old time celebrating that returned lamb.
      What do I want you to do? I want you to send the police over here and straighten them all out. I want the cops to scare that lamb straight – maybe throw him in prison for a couple of nights so that he sees where his foolish behaviour might land him in the long run. But, however they manage it, I want them to shut down that very inappropriate party and make sure that people think very soberly and critically about what I think they have done wrong…
      What do you mean you don’t do that kind of thing? I don’t care if nobody is technicallybreaking the law, I pay your salary and somebody needs to fix this for me. (Hangs up.)
     
            H
ello, 911, yes, I will state the nature of my emergency. The nature of my emergency is that the last time I called, nobody came! Why yes, I’m flattered that you remember me. I am the person who called about the sheep party yesterday and you were honestly no help whatsoever. But I’ve decided to give you a chance to redeem yourself today. No, I’m not calling about my neighbour with the sheep. His house is all quiet; I guess that maybe the wandering sheep did learn a lesson. No, it’s the neighbour on the other side who’s causing all the trouble today.
      Why yes, it is a party and it’s even noisier and more rambunctious than the one that was going on yesterday. What are they celebrating? Well, you’re not going to believe this one. It’s about a coin. Yes, you heard me right, a coin. I know, right? Who throws a party over a coin? But that is the craziness that’s going on in my neighbourhood tonight and I blame you guys. Maybe if there had been a reasonable response to the sheep party yesterday, somebody would have thought twice about throwing a party over something as frivolous as a coin.
      Okay, since you don’t really seem to have anything to do (which is actually a bit surprising) I’ll tell you the whole story. My neighbour on the other side, you see, is very poor. She is so poor that in an entire year of working hard and scrimping and saving she was only able to put aside ten coins. That’s it, only ten. Now I don’t mean to look down on people who have to work for a living but, come on, if you are that poor, there’s got to be something wrong with you. You must be making some bad choices and have bad priorities.
      Let me tell you some of the rumours that are going around about her. I’ve heard that she has spent her welfare money buying lobster and filet mignon! What’s worse, she smokes. Now, do you know how much it costs for cigarettes these days? Just think of how much money she would save if she quit!
      Now, I know what she tells me. She says that she’s working three different jobs because no one will hire her full-time and two of them pay her under the table so they don’t even have to meet minimum wage. She claims that she’s so exhausted after working at her first two jobs and heading for her third that the only thing that gives her the energy to get through it is a quick hit of nicotine. Now, to me, that sounds like a serious lack of character. She should have gotten her priorities straight long before this. That’s why I figure it must be her own fault that she’s so poor.
      So, anyway, like I said, she managed to do something responsible by saving up ten whole coins, but then she showed just how irresponsible she was by losing one of them. Just goes to show you that poor is as poor does. So, she panics, cleans her whole house and finally finds the lost coin.
      Now, if she had any shame – which she apparently does not – she would be ashamed of having lost the coin in the first place. If she had any dignity, she would just be quiet about it. She would be quietly thankful to find her lost money and do what I’d do, pretend like nothing ever happened. But does she do that? No! She’s got to call attention to her foolishness by inviting everybody over for a great big rowdy celebration.
      And let me ask you, how is she affording this party? How can somebody whose whole life is working at miserable jobs and scrimping and saving and going without just to save up ten measly little coins possibly justify spending anything to celebrate the one good thing that happened in her life this whole year?
      So, this time you guys are going to do something about this. She is benefiting from social services and the low income tax credit, not to mention health care and other universal services, and so, as a taxpayer I have every right to tell her what she should be spending her money on and what she shouldn’t. You need to send some people over here right now and shut down that party. But… Yes, but… I suppose, but don’t you think that… Hello? Hello?
     
      What are those two parables of Jesus really about? I know that it says in the gospel that they’re all about the excitement and celebration that there is in heaven over one sinner who repents, and, yes they are about that, but when you really listen to the stories, that’s not exactly what they put the emphasis on. Both stories end with celebration, but the celebration is odd and somewhat unexpected. The celebration, in many ways, is outrageous. Why would you celebrate one wayward sheep who was found and brought back to the fold? Why celebrate the finding of one lost coin?
      Jesus told these parables as a way of illustrating what the kingdom of God was like. And the bottom line seems to be that the kingdom of God is all about what seem to be inappropriate celebrations. And the celebrations are all happening in this world, too, not in some other world. The kingdom of God is about celebrating things that this world finds scandalous. In particular, it is about celebrating people that others may feel are somehow shameful or guilty or otherwise unacceptable in some way.
      How should we take that and apply it to modern life – say, perhaps, the life of the church today? Think of it this way, we like to talk about how our churches are open and welcoming, about how we welcome anyone no matter who they are. It’s what we put on our signs and in our bulletins. And, in theory, we do welcome everyone who walks through the doors of a church with a warm handshake and a cheery hello. But the kingdom of God is not just about welcoming people. Jesus, in these parables, seems to be saying that it is about celebrating people and about celebrating them as they are.
      I would like us to note that usually we would like to celebrate the people who conform to our idea of what a Christian is supposed to be or look like or act like. We would rather wait for them to change and become just like us before we even think of celebrating them – something that, in many cases, will not happen and maybe should not happen. The celebrations that Jesus describes in these parables are scandalous celebrations, the kind that people would have objected to.
      We are asked to choose life if we are going to be followers of Jesus Christ. That includes choosing life for our churches. We think that the way to do that is to make sure that everyone in our churches is the same – that they all believe exactly the same things, dress alike, behave alike and hold exactly the same ethical ideas about behaviour. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as something that is, in our eyes, a premature or scandalous celebration where we celebrate people for who they already are – for who God has created them to be.
      And, you know what, that is going to upset some people. Some people are going to say, “You shouldn’t be celebrating them as they are, you should be telling people to change that about themselves.” And so, it might seem as if celebrating people as they are is something that will keep the church  from living and growing as people get offended by our celebrations and may turn away. I just wanted to point out that Jesus didn’t think about it that way, didn’t think that way at all.

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Choosing Life: Building Towers

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


Hespeler, 8 September, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33
I
n our reading this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land and he lays before them a stark choice. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today,” he says, “that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
      And I know how people sometimes read that verse. It comes, after all, in the context of the law that Moses has just reviewed with the people – the Ten Commandments and all of the other requirements that God has placed on them. In that context, this verse can certainly come across as a threat. “Listen, deez are all the tings I want youse to do and you better do dem and do dem good or you’ll find yourself wearing cement overshoes and sleeping with the fishes if you know what I mean.” It might make God seem like a tyrant or mob boss who is only too happy to punish any form of disobedience with terror and murder.

      But I do not think that that is the intention. The God that we meet in the Bible is not that kind of mean and vindictive God but rather a God of grace and love who pours out blessings not only on his own people but on the all the peoples of the earth regardless of whether or not they follow all of the precepts of the Law of Moses. So what we have here is not a threat but a promise. It is saying that God has shown to the people a better way to live through these laws and teachings and inviting them to follow them so that they might live long and prosper in the land that they are about to enter. It is more about a quality of life than it is about a quantity of life – about living a life that is filled with meaning and purpose.
      But it is not always obvious to us what things are going to give us that kind of meaningful life. Sometimes what feels right is not what is going to be best for you in the long run. It might feel right to eat a bucket of chocolate every day, for example, but I do not think that that is a course of action that serves you well over the long term. So sometimes we need help to learn some of the non-obvious choices we need to make to live the better quality of life. Moses is saying that the law is there to help us to do that.
      That is why I decided this month, based on the readings from the lectionary that are offered to us, to focus on how we – as Christians living in the modern world – could choose life. What are the non-obvious choices that we can make – not out of obligation and obedience but out of faith and trust in God – that will lead to a life that is more abundant.
      In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus offers some rather surprising advice on how to choose life. Jesus suggests that choosing life might actually be costly, very costly. Now, that doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Most of us approach life with the assumption that top quality life has to do with what you can get out of it, not with what you pay into it.
      Jesus actually feels that this is so important that he puts it in stark and shocking terms. “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”Now, what does he mean by that? Does he mean that everyone who decides to become a follower of Jesus is necessarily going to face being rejected by family members that they love or that every Christian will wind up being crucified by the Romans? Obviously not. Not everyone will pay that kind of ultimate price, of course, but he is saying that it will cost you something and it will be something meaningful – something that hurts in some way.
      Now, I think it is important that I pause at this point and simply acknowledge that, just about every day that I am in the church, I have somebody tell me that Jesus was wrong about that – every single day. Just think, for a moment, about the things you hear people talking about in the church – any church. They talk about what they get out of it or, often enough, what they’re not getting out of it. “Oh, I really felt good coming out of worship today. It really lifted me up,” they might say or alternatively they might say, “Ugh, I just didn’t get what I needed out of worship today.” People evaluate sermons in the same way. They talk about how a sermon inspired them or comforted them or taught them something they wanted to know – or alternatively they remark on how it didn’t do any of those things and was therefore obviously a bad sermon. People talk about whether or not they are affirmed in their Christian life, whether they are encouraged or loved or sometimes it just comes down to whether they get their way or not.
      And I don’t mean to imply for a moment that there are not benefits that come to people because they follow Christ or participate in the life of the church. There are. But every time we focus exclusively on these things and whether or not we are getting them, we are arguing against everything that Jesus is saying in this passage. When we are merely focused on what we can get out of Christianity, whether in this life or in the next, Jesus seems to be saying that we are actually missing the point of it. Jesus says that the only measure of a good Christian life is what you put into it.
      This idea is rather problematic in the real world. In fact, I feel that I need to acknowledge that you really can’t make it through this life if you just give and give and give and never take care of our own needs. If you find yourself in a relationship where that is the equation – where you are always the giver and someone else is alwaysthe taker – I am sorry to say that you are likely in an abusive relationship and that it needs to change or you need to get out of it.
      That goes for the life of the church as well. I know that there are some churches and some preachers who have used these words of Jesus and others like them to place unreasonable and unrealistic demands for obedience and service on the people who are in those churches and I know that that is also a kind of abuse and even demonic abuse in the worst cases.
      And I believe that that is why Jesus doesn’t simply say that you should give and give and give in your life of discipleship. What he does say is that you should count the cost. That is to say that you should think and plan for what it will cost you so that no one takes advantage of you but also so that you have what it takes to sustain you through to the end.
      I think that Jesus recognized just how little sense this would make to people. He understood that people are usually far more focused on what they get out of the Christian life than on what they put into it. And so he gave us a couple of parables, images that we could keep in mind and remember what it is really all about. He said that following him is like when you build a tower and it’s like when you send an army to fight a dangerous foe.
      And so, to fix that idea in our minds, let’s just take a moment to paint a picture of one of those images that Jesus used. Let us imagine our church as a tower. Our church actually is a tower in this community. And, no, I’m not referring to the tower that is part of our church building. That architectural feature is beautiful and, I think, appreciated by the community, but there are ways in which the church itself, by which I mean the community of people here, is a tower in this community. We have a long-standing, and in some ways growing, reputation for caring. People trust us and entrust their resources to us, even though they are not part of this congregation, as we reach out and offer food and clothing and other supports to people in need in and around Hespeler.
      That good reputation is no small thing. It is one of the things that gives meaning to everything we do around here. And there is absolutely no way that that could have happened if people had merely been focused on what they got out of the life of this church. People regularly put in work and time. They have been willing, sometimes, to put up with inconvenience and clutter in this building that belongs to us for the sake of those continuing outreaches. People give sacrificially in order to maintain these outreaches and to support the structure of the church that makes them possible. We have built a tower in this community. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel pretty good, but very few of us get anything out of being that tower except that good feeling. And that is how it should be.
      That is but one way in which I see our church life together as a tower. Many of the other things we do together are tower-like, but maybe not noticeable in the community in the same way. We lift up praise and worship to God together. We build up one another through teaching and mutual affirmation and we are commissioned and sent out into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We teach the children and youth among us and seek to set them on a good path in life. These are all ways of building towers that are worthwhile.
      Today we recognize the tower builders among us. We recognize the elders who take on those key leadership roles and seek to guide the whole church on a spiritual level. We recognize the deacons who care for the membership of the church and seek to support them through the ups and downs and trials of life. We recognize the teachers and leaders for children and youth and those who serve on various committees and who often take care of unseen and thankless tasks that just need to be done in order to keep the whole thing going. And, of course we acknowledge those who participate directly in our outreaches at Hope Clothing, Food Bank and food bank lunches, the Thursday Night Supper and Social and more.
      In fact, there is a place for every single person to, in their own way, contribute to this tower that we have built and are building. But what Jesus is saying is absolutely true, if we’re only focused on what we get out of this thing called church and whether ourneeds are met, we will not build a tower that stands. The foundation will rot away. So, I would encourage you all to think about what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus in this particular time and place. Let’s give up on the notion that it doesn’t cost anything to follow Jesus. The cost is great and you need to decide for yourself where you contribute and how. It is not for me to stand here and tell you that you must give in this way or in that way. But I pray that you listen to Jesus and count the cost of what it takes for you to follow him.
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The Rise of Euphrates.com

Posted by on Sunday, August 4th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 4 August, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21
O
ne day, when Jesus was speaking to a large group, one of the people in the crowd called out to him. “Lord,” he said, “my sister just won $50,000 in the lottery. If she were just to give me half of that, I could pay off all of my debts and maybe even get ahead on my mortgage. Then I could finally stop worrying about money all the time. Would you please tell her to do so?”
      But Jesus called back to that man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he began to warn the people and teach them that they would not find security in such things. He told them a story.
     
      “Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a man who had an amazing and wonderful idea. You see, he knew that there were bookstores spread all across the land where people would go and buy books. But these bookstores were located on expensive real estate and they took a great deal of space and expensive staff to rather inefficiently sell books to the people who wanted them.
      “So this man’s plan was to create a massive distribution system to sell books to people. He wouldn’t need to create expensive retail bookstores because people would be able to look at and select the books that they wanted on this amazing new thing called the internet. He wouldn’t even have to pay for the warehouse space to store all of the books – the publishers could keep them in their own warehouses until they were needed – so instead this man would concentrate on shipping and distribution and do it very efficiently.

      “Now, what would you call something like that – a company that is built around a massive distribution system. Well, of course, you name it after a river because nothing can move things like a river – and not just any river but the greatest river in the whole world. You name it after the River Euphrates.” (Because remember that this is Jesus who is telling this story and in his world, there is no more important river than the Euphrates.)
      “And so it was that Euphrates.com was born and the founder of the company very quickly became the biggest and most successful bookseller in the whole world. And what do you suppose that he did next. Did he just lean back and say to his soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’? No, he did not because he did not feel as if he had anywhere enough to feel as secure as that. He needed more.
      “And so what he said to his soul was this: ‘Soul, you have become the biggest bookseller in the world but you can do more. Why should you restrict yourself to selling only books when there are so many other goods that people want or need?” And so he began to build great warehouses and fill them with everything imaginable so that there was nothing new under the sun that was not found in a Euphrates.com warehouse.
      “Now already, at this point, the man’s success had had a negative effect on local bookstores – they just couldn’t compete with Euphrates.com in selection or price. But now other local retail stores began to suffer the same fate with locations being closed and whole chains going down. And the man began to sell so many products that he had to tear down his warehouses and build even bigger warehouses – massive warehouses where computer programs and robots could sort and shift packages at almost the speed of light.
      “And, yes, he did have to hire some real flesh and blood people to work in his warehouses (which was a good thing, I suppose, given all of the local retail jobs that were disappearing) but he didn’t much like it and he made a point of paying them as little as he possibly could and squeezing as much labour out of them as they could possibly give so that Euphrates.com became famous for its poor working conditions.
      “In and through all of this, the man became the world’s largest retailer and a billionaire with more money than he could possibly ever spend in his lifetime. And what then? Did he finally speak to his soul at that point and say, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’?
      What, are you kidding? He didn’t have nearly enough to feel that secure. There was so much more that he could do to dominate everything that was bought and sold in the world. He created devices – speakers with microphones in them and he created an artificial intelligence that could speak to people in their homes so that he could anticipate everyone’s smallest needs and whims and desires and he could fulfil them all. In fact, he got so good at it that he could practically anticipate anything that someone might need before they even knew that they needed it.
      “And so it came to pass that he became not just very rich, not just the richest man in the country but the richest in the whole world. In fact, he was on the verge of becoming the world’s very first trillionaire. Now, do you have any idea of what kind of wealth that actually represents? We are getting into the territory now where it’s not just a matter that no individual could possibly spend that kind of money in many lifetimes. We are in the territory where the world couldn’t even contain that kind of money if it were printed up as hundred dollar bills.
      “So this, surely, is it. The man is finally going to have to throw up his hands and say to his soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’? I mean, what could possibly make him more secure, more comfortable, less worried for his future? He could double that amount and still, in practical terms, have no more earthly security than he does now. But is that what he will do? Everything seems to indicate that the answer is no. He will continue to seek more and more and I somehow suspect that, should he come to posses the whole world (which actually seems possible) even that will not be enough for him. In fact, I hear he might even be thinking of conquering space as well.”
     
      Now, this whole time, the man who had originally asked Jesus the question – the one who wanted Jesus to tell his sister to share her lottery winnings with him – had been listening to this story of Jesus and listening, frankly, with growing disbelief. Surely the kind of person that the teacher was describing could never actually exist. Why, not even if the world should endure for, say, two thousand years after the time when Jesus of Nazareth walked upon the earth would there ever possibly be a person who was so obsessed with accumulating ever more wealth and doing it for its own sake. How could there be someone who was so uninterested in any possible good that he could do with his wealth (apart, of course, from any good that he inadvertently did while building ever more profits)! Surely the man in this story was a caricature – a straw man.
      But, as the man listened to this ridiculous story, he had a sudden realization. Jesus was holding up this utterly ridiculous example to make a point. And it was a good point. Jesus was saying that it doesn’t actually matter how much you have. You think that you could get just a little bit more, just an extra $50,000 of lottery winnings, and it will push you over the edge to the place where you feel you can finally be secure and not have to worry about anything. But there’s actually no amount that can do that for you.
      You could have as much as this plainly fictional CEO of Euphrates.comand you would still not be satisfied because he was not satisfied. The sense of having enough to feel truly secure was always in the future. When you have built big enough warehouses, when you have replaced your entire workforce with robots, when you have beaten everyone into space, then you will able to pat your soul on the back and tell it that it’s eat, drink and be merry time. But the thing is that that day never seems to come. There is always one more thing to do before you get there.
      And so, the man who had made the request spoke once more to Jesus. “I thank you, teacher, for telling me about this absurd man. You make me realize that even if my sister did give me half of her winnings, I would likely not find that enough to feel secure either.”
      “Well,” replied Jesus, “if that is true then you may indeed be wiser than the CEO Euphrates.com. But I have not yet plumbed the depths of his foolishness, for there is one thing more. Because everything that this man felt he had to do to find his security was in the future, there is something else that is inevitable. He can never actually achieve it all and, sooner or later as is the way of all flesh, he will die. That is something that neither the richest man in the world nor the lowliest slave can escape. He will inevitably die without finding that security he craves by amassing enough. And what will happen to all of his possessions, even if he owns the whole world, at that point? Who will take them then?”
      To this, one of the other people in the crowd cried out, “Hey, you can give it to me!” There is always one in every crowd. And he got a laugh, of course he did. And Jesus smiled too, but as he smiled he also shook his head. “My friend, he said if that is all you get from the story, then you might just be a bigger fool than that man was.
     
      I think that one of the reasons why we sometimes miss the meaning that is in the parables of Jesus is because we totally abstract them from the situations in which he told them. We pull them apart and analyze each piece and try to find the symbolic meaning. What we forget was that they were stories that were specifically meant to elicit certain responses from the people who were listening. What they felt about the story was, in many ways, more important than the story itself. He wanted to provoke reaction, surprise and even shock from his audience. He wanted to shake up their assumptions about how the world worked and how it was supposed to work.
      The rich man in this particular parable of Jesus was a figure that the people in the crowd would have recognized. he was familiar to them just like celebrity billionaires are familiar to us and we think we know what they are like. He was the sort of person that they all paid their rents to and, yes, he did use those rents to build great big barns for himself and to build what they assumed was perfect security in this life. They envied him and wanted to be like him, but Jesus told them this story to make them understand exactly what a fool he was and what a fool the entire system made of each one of them.
      Jesus told that story to make them question the ways that the world worked and to see it all in a very different light. I suspect that Jesus would be only too happy if we were to question those very things about our society and the way that things are supposed to work and about who is truly wise and who is a complete and utter fool.
     

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What difference can one make?

Posted by on Sunday, July 28th, 2019 in Minister


Hespeler, 28, July 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13
Y
ou have heard that somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, stretching, in fact, much of the way between California and Japan, there is a massive patch of floating plastic that does nothing but grow every year. Fish, birds, whales and dolphins have floated in with their stomachs full of the stuff and having choked to death on it.
      You know that plastic, a lot of it, will hang around in landfills, dumps and in the food chain for hundreds if not thousands of years. And you have also recently heard that, for all the hoopla over recycling, most recycling programs for things like plastic bags have been complete failures and that these days, the Asian countries that we had been shipping used plastics to have started to refuse to even receive them.

      You know all of that, all of the problems associated with single-use plastics. But you’re standing here on the checkout line and, yes, once again you forgot to bring along your reusable shopping bags. You must have about a hundred in your trunk, but they’re really no help to you there. You only have three or four items with you, you could probably juggle them out to the car without too much trouble. But then people would probably look at you kind of funny and you can’t have that. And so, when you get there, and the inevitable question comes, “Would you like a bag?” of course you answer yes. It is convenient. It is sanitary. But what is the number one reason why you say yes? We’ve all said it to ourselves from time to time. “Ah, what difference does it make what one person does?” The problem is so huge and one bag doesn’t count for anything.
      It’s almost become a tenet of our society – our go-to answer to every moral quandary of modern life. “Why not just crank up the air conditioning throughout the summer? Why should I pass up my comfort when my neighbour doesn’t?” The answer we give is, “what difference can one person’s energy use make in global warming?”
      Or if somebody asks the question, “Why doesn’t somebody stand up against the terrible ways that people talk about immigrants and refugees these days,” the answer is always, “What can one person do to make a difference against all the terrible rhetoric that is out there?”
      It is, in many ways, the great question. Or perhaps it is just the greatest excuse. But whichever it is, wouldn’t you like to have the answer? Wouldn’t you like to know what difference one person can make? Which is exactly why I am so upset with Abraham this morning. I mean, he had God right there. He had God on the record and yet he didn’t ask the question. He started at fifty and he firmly established that, yes, fifty righteous people – fifty people doing the right thing – could make a difference, that they could even save a city that was filled with wickedness and doomed to destruction.
      And then, just like good Middle Eastern trader, Abraham started to haggle. “Okay,” he said, “so we’ve established that fifty is enough. Surely you wouldn’t destroy an entire city for the lack of, say, just five people?” and so Abraham gets God down to forty-five, and then forty, thirty, twenty and even ten! Oh, Abraham is a master at the art of haggling. But he stops too soon. He gets God all the way down to ten and then he doesn’t push it any farther. Why not? Why not push it down to five? to three? to one? Would we not then finally have the definitive answer to the eternal question: what difference can one person make?
      Now I know that there are some who would refuse to take this strange conversation between God and Abraham and apply it to modern issues like global warming and single-use plastics. They would say that this debate is about a particular situation and a particular kind of threat and that we should not take the story of Sodom and apply it to different kinds of threats that we might face today. I’d just like to point out that that is not how the Bible treats the story of Sodom at all.
      The writers of the Bible were only too happy to take the example of Sodom and Gomorrah and apply it to whatever contemporary issues they felt to be most important. Just about every time you have a prophet or a preacher in the Bible who wants to warn a people or a nation that they are treading on thin ice and are risking disaster, they tell them that they are behaving just like Sodom and Gomorrah no matter what particular thing they are doing that the speaker feels is wrong.
      And so, for example, the prophet Ezekiel at one point explains that the sin of Sodom was that it “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) That was what Ezekiel said that Sodom did wrong. But I don’t believe that Ezekiel said this because he had special insider information about what life was really like in Sodom. (There is no mention of such problems in Sodom anywhere else in the Bible.) But Ezekiel says it because he is speaking about that very problem in the Kingdom of Judah in his own time. By comparing them to Sodom, he’s not making a literal connection between the failings of the two places, it is just a way of saying that Judah’s behaviour is just as destructive as Sodom’s was.
      Jesus did the same thing when he spoke about Sodom. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15) But the “that town” that Jesus was talking about was any town that failed to offer hospitality to him and his disciples. So, Jesus also defined the failure of Sodom (which, according to Genesis, did doom itself by failing to offer hospitality to angelic visitors) in terms of the failure of towns and cities in his own time. So when the Bible talks about Sodom, and it talks about it a lot, it is clearly not just talking about one particular time and place or what was specifically happening there, but about ongoing ways in which human beings are risking disaster and destruction.
      My favourite application of the Sodom story in the Bible, in fact, is found in one of the strangest letters of the New Testament, the Letter of Jude. Jude blames the destruction of Sodom on people pursuing “strange flesh,” (Jude 7 *see footnote) that is to say the flesh of angels, but that is clearly because he had a bit of an obsession with how people in his own day were inappropriately dealing with angelic matters and ideas.
      So, the city of Sodom is, in the Bible, a convenient way to talk about all kinds of self-destructive human behaviour. It is entirely consistent for us to use that story to talk about the kinds of issues that we face today. In a very real sense, in this story, Abraham and God are debating about the difference that one person can make in global warming, in the accumulation of waste plastic and a host of other issues that may threaten our world and our survival today. They are debating the very question that still affects us and our actions today.
      Except, as I say, when Abraham has the chance, he kind of lets God off the hook. He gets God bartered down to ten and then he gives up and lets God go. So we never get the definitive answer to the question, what difference can the actions of one person make. And I can’t help but wonder whether that might be the point. Maybe that is precisely the question that is not supposed to be answered. When you are faced with the choice – Do I add to the mountain of plastic by taking this one bag I don’t need or do I not? Do I choose the more fuel-efficient option even if it costs me a bit more? Do I take the chance and maybe pay the price by speaking up for an injustice that I see? – when you are faced with that choice, the simple truth is that you don’t get to know what the result of your brave or wise action will be. You have to act in faith and in hope, even though you have no guarantee that it will make a difference. That is the kind of faith that God looks for from us and I believe that God always rewards that kind of faith.
      So maybe that is the part of the answer to the eternal question that we are given in this passage: you don’t get to know whether what you do will make a difference, but that does not absolve you from doing what is right. But I am not sure that that is the whole answer. It is true that the debate between God and Abraham over how many righteous people it takes to save a society ends when they get to ten. God may have walked away at that point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the debate was over. In many ways, the rest of the Bible is the continuation of the debate over that question as it tells the story of person after person who takes a stand for what he or she feels is right and just. What are the stories of Joseph, of Moses, of prophets like Amos or Jeremiah and women like Esther and Mary if they are not stories of just such individuals? Is not Jesus himself the ultimate example of someone who did the right thing at the highest cost? And does not the very fact that we remember those people, that their stories have endured, an indication that the answer might be yes, that one person does make a difference.
      There is one particular figure in the early Christian church who is an indication that this particular debate that we read in the Book of Genesis this morning was still a lively debate into the early life of the church. You may have heard of him; he was one of the most famous Christians of the first century. His name was James. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was often called James the Brother of Jesus, but most people seemed to know him by another name. Both his fellow believers and others called him James the Just.
      Now understand that that word “just” is the same word (both in Hebrew and Greek versions of the story) as the word that Abraham and God are arguing over in Genesis – it is the word righteous. The name seems to be an indication that people – both Christians and non-Christians by the way – saw James as the kind of person who was so righteous that he could save an entire city from destruction. In other words, they extended Abraham and God’s debate to its logical conclusion and the answer was one. It really only required one righteous person to save an entire city from destruction.
      James the Just was eventually assassinated. According to some reports, he was thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. This happened just before the Romans attacked and destroyed the city and temple of Jerusalem in 70 ad. You can be sure that many people made the clear connection between the two events. Maybe James really had been the only thing that was saving them from self-destructing in a foolish and violent rebellion against Rome.
      The answer is one. The actions of one person who does the right thing do matter. Maybe God didn’t let Abraham push the question to that point because he knew that the thing that makes the right action effective is that it is undertaken in faith. You don’t do it because you have a guarantee that it will work but because you are willing to trust God to take what you do and multiply it through the actions of many others. But whatever you do, don’t believe the lie that this world tries to sell you that your decisions and actions don’t matter. They do. You are a child of a God who would do anything for your sake. Of course, God will bless what you do for the sake of what is right and just and good. The answer is one. It takes one.
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Mary, Martha and the Guest

Posted by on Sunday, July 21st, 2019 in Minister

This sermon is also an episode of the Retelling the Bible Podcast. You can listen to the episode here:


And find out more about the episode and podcast here: Retellingthebible.wordpress.com/


Hespeler, 21 July, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:1-10, Psalm 15:1-5, Colossians 1:15-27, Luke 10:38-42
V
ery early that morning – before the sun had peeked over the hills – Mary had been awakened from a very deep slumber by her older sister. “Mary, Mary,” Martha called to her, “something exciting is going to happen today. I just know it – something that will change everything. Do you know that man – the one from Nazareth that everyone has been talking about – he and his followers have been travelling all over Galilee preaching and healing and telling stories. Well, I heard the people in marketplace talking yesterday and it seems that he is coming here to our village and that he is going to come today. Do you know what that means?”
      Mary, who was still more than half asleep and trying to reclaim a half-remembered dream, didn’t have the faintest idea what that meant and she indicated that with a long, low growl.
      “Mary,” Martha continued with more insistence, “I think that this is finally it, the solution to our problem.”

      Mary’s next grunt was more of an affirmative; she knew exactly what her sister meant when she spoke about “our problem.” She understood that, ever since their mother and then their father had died, they were both in a precarious position. Martha had somehow managed to keep the family home and lands intact despite the efforts of creditors and greedy relatives. She was hard-working and she never gave up. She had won for them a certain free space, but they both knew that their position was incredibly insecure. Unless one of them could marry and soon, unless there was a man who could protect the property, they would lose everything. But, without a male relative to speak for them, there had been no way to secure the kind of marriage that would really help.
      Mary was puzzled. “How can some preacher from Nazareth, of all places, possibly be the solution to ‘our problem?’ What can he do for us?”
      “Haven’t you heard what people have been saying about him? He is not just some ‘preacher from Nazareth.’ They are saying that somehow the God of our Fathers and our Mothers is present in him. People have looked into his eyes and seen the Creator of the universe staring back at them. Mary,” Martha said while her eyes took on a strange and yet familiar glow, “this is it, the opportunity I have been preparing for all my life.”
      “Oh,” said Mary to herself, “not this again.” Ever since she had been a little girl, Martha had been obsessed with one of the ancient stories of their people – a story of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. One time, when Father Abraham was sitting outside of his tent, God came to visit him in the form of three men. But Abraham didn’t know that it was God, for the visitors appeared only to be common travelers. Nevertheless, following the laws of hospitality, Abraham and Sarah treated the visitors like kings. Martha loved to describe that encounter so much, that Mary could hear her voice telling that part of the story without even trying.
      “As soon as the strangers appeared,” Mary could hear her saying, “Abraham went and bowed down low with his face to the ground before them. He told them that it would bring the greatest honour upon him if they would only be willing to share a few miserable morsels of his food. He really played it up, made it seem as if the food was so terrible that they would almost be doing him a favour if they ate it.
      “But then, of course, he and Sarah played a great switch on them by offering them the most incredible feast with bread made of the finest flour, tender veal and tangy cheese. And then, while they sat there enjoying the delectable morsels, and while Abraham hovered over them, not even daring to sit down and eat with them, it happened. God gave them the one thing they needed, the one thing that would fulfill all of their dreams. Within the year, Sarah would have a son.”
      “Let me see if I’ve got this straight,” Mary said to her sister, “you think that we’re going to invite this Jesus from Nazareth to our house and offer him hospitality and you’re going to blow him away with your amazing recipe for veal parmesan and he’s going to give us everything that we need? Martha, don’t you understand that things don’t work like that in the real world?”
      Martha’s expression turned cold at her sister’s rebuke. “I don’t care if you think it’s going to work. I just want you to go and find the man and invite him to come to this house. And you better do it as graciously as ever Father Abraham did.”
     
      And that’s how it happened that, after a quick breakfast, Mary found herself waiting just inside the village gate for the preacher to appear. When he arrived, she knew which one he was immediately. He traveled at the centre of a small knot of men and a few women too. They hung on his every word as he spoke. Immediately, before anyone else had the opportunity to do so, Mary stepped forward and fell to her knees before the stranger. The man stopped and looked down with surprise and amusement. The smile on his face only widened as Mary repeated the words that she had learned from her sister’s many retellings of the story: “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves in our house. Let us bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.”
      With that, Mary finally looked up into the eyes of the man. He looked at her so intently and with such intelligence and understanding that she suddenly caught her breath. She had not taken seriously what her sister had said about this man. She had assumed that he was just another traveling charlatan who had caught the imagination of the countryside. She hadn’t imagined that he might truly have something new and worthwhile to say. But, now that she had seen him, she knew that she had to know more about him.
      “I thank you for your gracious invitation,” the man replied, “I must indeed dine at your house this evening.” and with that he turned to the others who were approaching him seeking healing and other help.
      Her sister was expecting her to return home directly to assist her as she prepared to host the guests at the end of the day. Of course, there would be a million things to do and Martha would obsess over every detail. Suddenly, however, Mary was filled with the desire to be anywhere else but in the kitchen with her sharp-tongued sister. But, more than that, she found herself to be filled with a desire to know everything that this man would say and do during the day in the village. She knew that she would pay for it later, that Martha would nurse her grievances against an absent sister and that she would never let her forget it if she abandoned her now, but she somehow couldn’t help it. She turned to follow the crowd that was beginning to form around the preacher.
     
      By the end of the day, Mary was even more exhausted than Jesus was, though she hadn’t really done anything – anything, that is, other than strain her ears to hear his every word and crane her neck to see everything that he was doing. He had been so busy that she was sure that he had completely forgotten her and her invitation, but, no sooner had the crowds begun to thin, than he turned and looked for her. Come, my sister, he said let us go to your house. I am starving!
      So, she led them there. Martha opened the door at the very moment they arrived (she had clearly been watching for them) and bowed even lower than Mary had done earlier as she repeated the familiar words once spoken by Abraham. She didn’t look at her sister, didn’t even say a word, which Mary found to be far more ominous than anything that she could have said. But still, as the group entered, she did not turn, as she knew her as a sister expected her to, and instead led the group into the courtyard where she sat at Jesus’ feet as if she were one of the man’s disciples.
      Mary wasn’t the only one who was intent to hear Jesus’ reflections on the events of the day. Everyone wanted to debrief with him and hear him talk about his various encounters and debate with him on the meaning of his parables. But Mary, in the kitchen, was sending up a great commotion. “Bang! Smash! Crunch!” the vessels were being battered together as if they were disobedient children. It got to the point where no one could concentrate on what Jesus was saying before Martha finally came storming out of the kitchen. Her anger was not directed, as Mary expected, at Mary, but instead at the teacher himself:Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
      Jesus looked at her. His eyes were filled with such compassion and understanding. You could tell that he understood completely why she was broken over this. It was not that she was angry at her sister for abandoning her to do the work, not really. She was weary of an endless war to create for herself the space to live in a society that would give her nothing. She was tired of a fruitless battle to save the heritage of her family. She was lashing out at her sister because she was the only person that she was allowed to get angry at but she knew, deep down, that Mary was not against her. It was the whole world that was against her and Mary was one of her few allies.
      “Martha,” said Jesus. Martha looked at him. She was actually a bit startled that he even knew her name – that he would have even been interested to know it. Mary didn’t find that surprising at all – not after she had seen the way that he had operated all day, but this was the first time that Martha had really seen him. He somehow defied all expectations.
      “Martha,” he said, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” He told her that as much as he appreciated her hospitality, and he did appreciate her hospitality, the importance of what she was doing was not found in what she did for her guest. He was not judging her on what she was doing for him. He was here for the pleasure of her company, her and her sister.
       “Mary has chosen the better part,” he said, “and nothing will take away the joy of what she has chosen. Now you need to choose what is most important for you. Nothing you could possibly do, nothing you could feed me or offer me, could possibly make you more beloved or acceptable in my eyes. Mary, by choosing to be here and giving full attention to me is already receiving everything that I can give.”
     
      In the end, they did not have the fancy and beautiful meal that Martha had dreamed all her life that she would one day give to some divine visitor. Everything was not “perfect.” But there was food enough for everyone and much enjoyment that each took in everyone’s company. It was in that, and not in the over-wrought perfection that someone created in the kitchen, that the divine presence was to be found that day.
      And as for Mary and Martha’s problem, the one that Martha had thought that only a divine visitor could solve for her? Well, let’s just say that by the end of the day, both of them had a very different understanding of what the key issues of their lives were and where they ought to put all of their energies.
     

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