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Script Out Passages: Script Out Principles

Posted by on Sunday, November 22nd, 2015 in Minister

Hespeler, 22 November, 2015 © Scott McAndless
2 Timothy 3:10-17, Romans 1:26-32, Psalm 19:7-14
T
oday we come to the end of what I think is the longest series of sermons that I have ever preached. Since the beginning of September we have been looking at what I call the Script Out passages of the Bible – passages that we love to hate and often wish weren’t there in the Bible at all. I’m going to confess that I am kind of glad to bring this series to a close on this, the last Sunday in the church year. It can be a little bit difficult to spend all that time focusing on Bible passages that you don’t really like. Next week, the first week in Advent, I am going to be very happy to turn to some more traditional themes of the Christian gospel.
      But I hope that you have picked up that, even if it is hard, I do think this kind of work is important. If we are people who believe in the Bible and take this book seriously, we have to be willing to invest the energy to struggle with those parts of the book that may make us feel uncomfortable or that we just plain don’t like. You cannot pick and choose which passages to follow.
      But even more important than that, I think that we need a better general understanding of how we can approach this book that we say is so important to us. One of the reasons why I felt I had to tackle the Script Out passages of the Bible was because I was hoping to develop some basic principles that we could use to apply whenever we come across passages that challenge us or give us trouble because this
is just something that is going to keep happening and we may even find that, as times goes by, there will be more passages that we stumble over for various reasons.
      A perfect example is a request that comes to us this year from the highest governing body of our denomination: the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The General Assembly has asked the congregations and sessions of our church to discuss and get back to them on a somewhat thorny social issue of our time. They want us to talk about how we include (or perhaps fail to include) LGBT people in the church. Just to be clear, LGBT stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. So it is simply a reference to a group of people who for various reasons, don’t quite fit into what might be called the traditional approach to how to live out sexuality.
      This has been a discussion that I and many people have resisted not because it is unimportant but because it seems likely to be divisive. No matter what answers we come up with, we will almost certainly not all agree. And if we tend to avoid the discussion, we are also going to avoid the passages in the Bible that have anything to say on the subject.
      But the reality is that, if we are going to be Christians who take the Bible seriously, we have to grapple with what the Bible says even if the discussion is uncomfortable. There are only a few passages that speak directly to these questions and I want to look at how we are going to approach them. I don’t mean to do this in order to tell you how you need to understand these passages or what you ought to think about the question in general. I just want to offer you some helpful approaches to keep in mind.
      But before we look at any particular passages, I want to start with some basic Biblical assumptions. You have heard the argument made (seriously by some, ridiculed by others) that the Bible does not support same-sex marriage because, and I quote, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” There is actually a valid point in that, at least when you understand what it is saying, and we need to take it seriously.
      What it is saying is that there is a certain assumption about what is normal or common in human relationships and specifically about the relationship between men and women in the Bible. This isn’t just something that we see in the creation story but an assumption that runs through much of Scripture, that the male/female relationship in marriage is normative and that it is the kind of relationship, from the perspective of Biblical society, that everyone is simply expected to engage in. And of course that was true. Everyone in Biblical times was expected to participate in so-called traditional marriage.
      Of course, what they called traditional marriage (as we saw a couple of weeks ago) was a little bit different from what we are used to. It included things like arranged marriages that had nothing to do with love, polygamy, female slavery and concubinage, rape victims who were forced to marry their rapists and all kinds of other things that we would never find acceptable. But there was an expectation that, one way or another, everyone would fit into the basic male/female marriage relationship somewhere and that was really whether they wanted to or not and whether they desired that kind of relationship or not.
      So it is true that the Bible takes male/female marriage relationships for granted and, indeed, as the basic foundation of society. And I see absolutely no problem with that. Even today, such relationships represent the norm in the sense that it is the kind of relationship that the majority of people will fit into in one way or another. What’s more, such relationships are very good and even foundational to society as a whole.
      But just because the Bible only sees one kind of relationship and calls that relationship good, that doesn’t mean that it is the only kind of relationship possible or the only one that can be good. I mean, just because the Bible assumes that everyone wears tunics and sandals doesn’t mean that such a mode of dress is the only one that anyone should wear today. Sandals and tunics being good doesn’t mean that a suit and tie is necessarily bad.
      One of the principles that we discovered during our discussions over the last few weeks had to do with something called proof texts. Proof texts are short Biblical texts that clearly lay out some Biblical policy. We saw, for example, that there are a few verses that, in former times, were regularly used to defend the practice of slavery. But the fact that there were a few verses in the Bible that clearly declared that slavery was an acceptable practice did not stop many Christians from using the Bible to argue against it. They discovered that, despite those few proof texts and despite the fact that the Bible took the institution of slavery for granted throughout the whole text, the overwhelming narrative of the Bible was about a God who was committed to bringing his people freedom from slavery and all oppression and that that story was more important than a few proof texts.
      Does that principle apply to the discussion of the place of LGBT people within the church? It is true that there are a few verses that are clear proof texts against homosexuality – six verses by most people’s count. Their meaning is not really open to a great deal of interpretation though we can look at them. Does the existence of those proof texts (assuming we are correctly understanding them) mean that any sort of conversation about how to include LGBT people is already over – that there’s nothing more to say?
      Well, I would say, given where we stand on slavery, we cannot possibly say that. We can never say that a proof text is the end of a conversation. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of what the overall narrative of the scriptures is. Is it one of including outsiders or is it one of judgment of people who don’t fit in. That is another discussion and one that you need to decide on for yourself as you read the Bible.
      Now, turning to those so-called proof texts, the clearest one is found in Leviticus chapter 20: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” It is, like many proof texts, a passage that doesn’t seem to leave much room for interpretation and many would point to it as the clearest Biblical rejection of LGBT people.
      But here again, another of our Script Out principles does apply. Way back when we started this series and looked at the Biblical prohibition against people getting tattoos, we noted that that law really doesn’t apply to today because it was part of a particular law code that was intended to set the people of Israel apart from their neighbours by forcing them to have a distinct culture.
      And when we looked at that ancient law against tattooing, I made this note: “We have to be consistent. If we don’t worry about one verse that we don’t like for a good reason, but then find another verse that we maybe do like that has a lot in common from the verse we rejected, be can’t just choose to dump one and keep the other. We have to think it all through critically.”
      The law against tattooing and the law against men lying with men are only one chapter apart in the Book of Leviticus. The two laws have a great deal in common and seem to have the intention of setting the people of Israel apart from their neighbours culturally. The tattooing law seems to reject the funerary practice of the Israelite’s neighbours and the law against men lying with men is likely rejecting the cultic prostitution practices of their neighbours but neither one is really reacting to cultural practices that are part of the world today. This leaves the question of whether either one really applies today at all open.
      There are only a few passages in the New Testament that touch on the question at hand. There is nothing at all in the Gospels. Jesus himself never said anything on the subject, possibly because the issue just never came up for him. At the very least, this seems to indicate that the matter wasn’t really a big concern for him. We have said before, in connection with some of the other Script Out passages, that Christian doctrine teaches us that God’s ultimate revelation of Godself to the world is not in a book like the Bible but is to be found in the living person of Jesus the Christ. Jesus’ lack of attention to this issue may be an indication of where it lies on God’s priorities. Something to keep in mind.
      The issue does come up in the letters of the New Testament: in Romans, in 1 Corinthians, in 1 Timothy and in Jude. We don’t have the time to go through those passages one by one now. People have certainly differed down through the centuries over exactly what they mean. And I am not going to tell you what you ought to do with them. You are smart people. You have seen some of the various principles that I have been talking about that help us to deal with those parts of the Bible that we don’t like or that we often avoid. I would like you to encourage you to apply them for yourself. We will also offer an opportunity in the New Year to study these passages and the larger issues in discussion.
      But I want to be clear here – I’m not trying to tell you what you should think of these passages. I’m trusting you to come to your own conclusions and understandings. I do expect that, though we will agree on some things, we will not agree about it all. But I think that is okay. In the history of the church it has happened too often that a majority (or sometimes a powerful minority) have imposed their thinking or their Biblical interpretations on everyone else. It is past time for that to stop.
      I don’t know exactly where this whole discussion will lead us in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. My hope and prayer, though, is that we find a way to create an environment where everyone feels the freedom to act according to their understanding and convictions and where we can respect the understandings and convictions of each other.
      In the Second Letter to Timothy, we are told that All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” If we really believe that – that all scripture (both the parts that we like and the parts that we don’t like) are given to us by God for our good, we will not be afraid to struggle with the scriptures, to question them and find some way to embrace them. What is at stake in these discussions and in other difficult discussions that may come is that we are a people who take all scriptures as a gift of God – sometimes especially the parts that we struggle with.

      

Passages referred to in the sermon:
Leviticus 18:22, 29; 20:13
Romans 1:26-27
1 Corinthians 6:9;
1 Timothy 1:10;
Jude 7.

Script Out principles:
  • Be consistent. You can’t just pick and choose which verses you like. Apply the same critical thinking to them all.
  • Pay attention to what is actually being said.
  • God never intended for us to turn our minds off and just take our moral truths from proof texts. You must never take your eyes off of the overall narrative of scripture.
  • God knew that the Bible would always be limited by the humans who transmitted it. So God chose to reveal himself in a way that could not be corrupted by human transmission. God revealed himself in a person: in Jesus the Christ. The living revelation of God in Christ always comes first.
  • Is this God’s final word on this subject or does the Bible have more to say elsewhere?
  • Understand the intentions of the people who first used this story.
  • Understand what the underlying assumptions are.
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Script Out Passages: Lessons from Sodom and Gomorrah

Posted by on Sunday, November 15th, 2015 in Minister



Hespeler, 15 November, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 19:1-13, Matthew 10:5-15, Isaiah 1:9-18
I
n late August, 2005, as we all remember, a powerful hurricane named Katrina made landfall on the southern coast of Louisiana. Katrina did a whole lot of damage, but no place was hit harder than the City of New Orleans. Many who surveyed the damage at the time gave the opinion that a great American city had simply been wiped off of the map. It was positively apocalyptic.
      As always happens in the face of that kind of tragedy, there was a great deal of soul searching and people asking why. Why did this happen? And there were lots of answers that were offered. Climate change and weather, the failure of the levees was blamed on the army corps of engineers, the failings of disaster assistance were blamed on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But by far the clearest answer to the whyquestion was given by a Christian evangelist by the name of John Hagee. Hagee declared that the cause of the disaster was obvious. It was God’s judgement. In particular, he stated, it had happened because some sort of Gay Pride parade had been planned in the French Quarter of the city. The hurricane had been sent by God to stop it.
      And what was the proof that Hagee offered for his explanation. He pointed to an announcement of such a parade that apparently was not really known to anybody else and appeared in no major newspapers. And he pointed to the Book of Genesis and the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. That, as far as he was concerned, was proof enough.
      Lots of people disagreed with him, of course. But everyone knew exactly what he was talking about. It has long been taken for granted by many that the meaning of that story is perfectly clear and that the Bible clearly says that God destroyed those two cities on purpose and that he did it specifically because of homosexuality. Because of that association, the story has become a rather uncomfortable story for many of us which means that we tend to ignore it and not think about it too mu
ch and that is not a good thing. It is a powerful and deeply meaningful story and it is a shame to lose that power and leave it in the hands of those who would use it to advance their own agendas.
      It is a story about consequences and it is important to talk about the consequences of our actions and choices. But in the hands of people like Hagee, only a small minority of people is singled out for blame – only they have to be responsible for their actions. Is that how the Bible really intended for us to read this story?
      The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned often in the Scriptures and is generally held up in the Bible as an example of the kind of consequences we may have to deal with if we make bad choices. As such, the story is applied to many different situations. One excellent example is a passage in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. The prophet is criticizing the city of Jerusalem and does so by saying that it is like a sister to the doomed city of Sodom. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom:” he says, “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)
      So clearly, as far as Ezekiel was concerned, Sodom’s problems were about how food was shared and about the growing gaps between the rich and the poor. And it was also clear to him that Sodom’s problems were not unique to Sodom and certainly not to some sort of minority in the city that they tolerated. He is warning the people of Jerusalem that they are like Sodom. That suggests to me that any interpretation of this story that limits its application to other people, to people not like us, is just not going to be good enough.
      The only real indication of what was wrong in Sodom that is given in the Book of Genesis is the way that the city treats a couple of angelic visitors. They arrive as strangers in the city and seem to be fully intent on spending the night sleeping in the town square. But one citizen, a man named Lot, doesn’t want them to do that and insists that they come to his house to stay instead.
      In ancient Mediterranean society, it was generally believed that, if a stranger appeared at your door or in your village, you had a moral obligation to offer them a place to stay. It was a divineobligation and there were many stories told in many different religions about people who welcomed strangers and discovered, to their surprise, that they were actually hosting gods or other heavenly beings. There are stories like that in the Bible too and this story of Lot and the angels is one such story (though this one certainly has a less happy ending than some of the others).
      So Lot takes the strangers home as his guests. As their host he owes them certain things under the hospitality laws of that time and place. Above all he owes them protection and security – he must protect them with his own life if necessary. This part quickly becomes very important because the men of the town soon hear of the strangers among them and gather to attack them.
      The threat that these men pose to the strangers is the source of the connection that has historically been made between this story and things like gay pride parades. The men of Sodom come to Lot’s door and say, Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”
      That doesn’t sound too bad. “We just want to get to know them.” But you need to realize that that verb, to know, had a very particular meaning in ancient Hebrew. It meant to know someone reallyintimately. It was, in fact, a term that was commonly used for sexual relations.
      So, no, when these men ask to “know” the guests in Lot’s house, it is no idle or innocent request. They are seeking to rape them. Because they are men and the angels they want to rape are male, that is where the whole association with homosexuality came from. But you do need to understand that the kind of rape that is threatened in this passage doesn’t actually have anything to do with sexual desire.
      We have come to understand that rape in general is not a crime of sexual desire but rather a crime of power, violence and domination. Not everyone realizes this, but men usually do not rape women because they are driven mad with sexual desire but rather because they want to impose dominance or power over them. So really, any discussion about rape is quite separate from any discussion about consensual sex.
      But this story is not even just about common rape. When a large group of people overpower a few weaker victims (either of the same sex or the opposite sex), that is called gang rape. And gang rape is and has long been a terrible feature of life in this world. It is particularly common in times of war and, as such, it has been extensively studied by historians and sociologists. They conclude that this kind of rape, in particular, is primarily a tactic – and sometimes a conscious military tactic – of domination, intimidation, dehumanization and control. It very clearly doesn’t have anything to do with sexual desire and those who participate in it do so entirely without reference to their own sexual orientation.
      And I think that is quite clearly what these men of Sodom are doing – they are seeking to dominate these strangers who have come to Lot’s house. They are, of course, quite despicable, abominable and immoral to seek to do this and deserve all sorts of condemnation for it (as do all rapists and gang rapists).
      But their intended actions in this story do not tell us anything about what we would refer to today as their “sexual orientation.” Indeed, the concept of sexual orientation is a very modern one that would not have made any sense to ancient people. And while you could very well use this story to criticize people for engaging in rape or gang rape, this story doesn’t really have anything at all to say (either positive or negative) about adults who engage consensually in sex.
      That is why I say that people who use this passage to lay the blame for Katrina or for any other disaster or misfortune at the feet of people because of their orientation or because of anything they engage in consensually are totally misusing the passage. In fact, to use this passage to challenge anyone but ourselves as readers of this passage is a very unbiblical reading. The prophet Ezekiel used the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to challenge the Jews of his own time to think about how the people of Jerusalem, his own people, failed to take care of the weakest and poorest people among them – that is how the Bible teaches us to use this passage.
      I also find the ways that Jesus used the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to be rather informative. I went looking through the gospels and was kind of surprised at how often Jesus did bring the story up. But, as often as he brought it up, it was never about singling out some group who were different from his own group. It was always about what was wrong with the entire generation.
      The passage that we read from the Gospel of Matthew this morning is a great example. It comes as Jesus is sending his disciples out to the various towns and villages of Galilee and he has been careful to send them out in pretty much the same condition as the two angels arrived in Sodom, as poor beggars who arrive with nothing – no gold, or silver, or copper, no bag, or change of clothes, or sandals, or staff.
      He is sending them out to share the good news and to bring healing and hope to the people, but he is also sending them out as a test of the whole generation. As they arrive, poor strangers in these Galilean towns, how they are received will reveal the true nature of the generation. If they are received as honoured guests according to the laws of hospitality that is a sign that the kingdom of God has indeed drawn near. If however they are received without hospitality, it will be a sign that this generation has reentered the evil age of Sodom: “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”
      That is how we need to be using this story. It is meant to help us look at the society of which we are part. In particular, it is supposed to help us look critically at how we personally contribute to how our society treats outsiders, people who don’t fit into our neat little notions of what is acceptable and not acceptable. And it is especially about how we treat the poor and the strangers.
      It is a shame that, because this particular story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes us feel uncomfortable, that we have been unwilling to give it our attention. By failing to deal with the story we have essentially left it to those who are only too happy to use it to advance their own agenda and attack whichever particular groups they have wanted to.
      In the extreme case, this is the kind of thinking that makes religious terrorists (such as those who claim responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris) feel that they are justified – that they are God’s hand of judgement against the immorality of a city or a nation. The whole world sees today the disgusting place such thinking leads us to.
      The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about whatever annoys us about other people. It is about what we need to do to welcome and give a place to those who we may struggle with because they are different from us. If this story isn’t doing that for you, you might just be reading it wrong.

      
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The Script Out Verses of the Bible: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

Posted by on Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 in Minister



Hespeler, 8 November, 2015 © Scott McAndless – Remembrance Sunday
Matthew 5:43-48, Joshua 5:13-15, Psalm 137
A
bout our Psalm reading this morning, I just wanted to let you know that I saw your reaction. In fact, we actually read this same Psalm in the same way a few weeks ago. I chose to have us read it responsively even though, at the time, I was not intending to preach on it as a part of my Script Out series. And then we read the closing words of the Psalm together: “O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
      When we all read that, I saw it. There was this little, “Wait, what?” moment. “Did we just read what I thought we read? How can there be people in the Bible who are congratulating themselves for dashing little Babylonian babies against the rocks? I thought that the Bible was supposed to be a nice book!”
      It is an awful couple of verses – the kind of passage makes you wish it were just taken out of the Bible altogether. I mean, I think we can appreciate, in this Psalm, that the Jews were rather mad at the Babylonians. The Babylonians had attacked them. They had destroyed their whole country and reduced the city of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord within it to so much rubble. The Babylonians had taken the Jews as slaves and captives and removed them from their land and made them live by the rivers of Babylon far from home.
      So, yes, they hated the Babylonians and saw them as their enemies and it is hard to blame them for that. I’m sure that we would all understand if they cursed and swore at the Babylonians all they wanted or even if they fought against them if given the chance. But, at the same time, I’m pretty sure that most of us would draw the line at rounding up little Babylonian babies and dashing them against the rocks as a way of getting back at the nation of Babylon for what it had done to them.
      So, yes, we squirm when we read it and would just as soon pretend that the verses weren’t there at a
ll. But, I’ll tell you, I think we need those verses in our Bibles and I’m going to tell you why.
      Today we are observing Remembrance Sunday. It is a day on which we honour the service of those who went and gave of themselves for the sake of their country in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions. We honour those who fought and defended. We honour those wounded in body and in spirit and we especially remember those who gave their very lives in service. This is a worthy thing to do. It does us all good, both as Christians and as Canadians, that we set aside time each year to do this.
      It doesn’t mean, of course, that we love war or glorify the violence that comes with war. On the contrary, we also see this time as an opportunity to pray for peace and to support those who work for peace. It’s just that most of us recognize that, as bad as it is, sometimes war cannot be avoided. There is a time to fight. If you look at the case of the Jews and the Babylonians, we can sympathize. We can understand the enmity that the Jews held for the Babylonians and can support the idea that they might have resisted them.
      And that is what the greater part of the psalm we read this morning is about: the Jews grieving and mourning for what has been done to them. Their captors, the Babylonians, make fun of them. They mockingly tell him to sing some of their songs of Zion – to sing the songs that used to be sung in the temple that was built on the top of Mount Zion in the city of Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it. They are rubbing it in and it is just plain mean. For the Jews to chafe and complain and even to seek to fight their way out of their situation is at least understandable.
      But the whole thing about bashing out baby’s brains crosses a line. That’s not about defending yourself or even about fighting back. That is about hate, pure and simple. It is about treating Babylonians as something other than human beings – as objects that can be bashed against the rocks with impunity.
      The reason why I am glad that it is actually there in the Psalm is because it is human. It is a reaction that is natural and all too common in times of war and civil strife. I don’t think that there has ever been a war where people didn’t speak of those that they were fighting against as somewhat less than human. Just think of all the slang terms that have been used for Germans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalis and the list goes on and on. You can understand why soldiers do it. It is just so much easier to kill an enemy if you don’t think of them as human anymore – if they are just a Hun or a Jap or a Raghead.
      So I understand where it comes from, but there is also so much that is wrong with it. When we dehumanize anyone, even an enemy, we are ultimately devaluing our own humanity and that is a big problem. And of course, it becomes even worse when the fortunes of war put us in a position where we can actually act on our belief that our enemies are somewhat less than human. Fortunately, the Ancient Israelites were never put in the position where they could actually dash Babylonian babies against the rocks, but unfortunately Canadians, Americans and others have been in that kind of position. The Canadian Airborne Division found itself in that kind of position in Somalia in 1993 and the result was what we know of as the Somalia Affair, one of the worst chapters in Canadian military history. The Americans found themselves in that position at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. The results were very disturbing to say the least.
      Enemies can be very useful, of course. They have a way of uniting people together and focusing their efforts towards a clear purpose. And of course, if you can persuade the people in general to treat their enemies as somewhat less than human, it allows you to manipulate people in some very scary ways. I don’t know about you, but I have felt like there has been a lot of that going on recently.
      Look, for example, at the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. With huge numbers of people on the move through Europe and spilling over into the whole world – people fleeing for their lives – of course there are a number of difficult issues that are arising. There are concerns about the economic impact, about security and about what such a large number of outsiders can do to a society. Of course these concerns are there and there is nothing wrong with being concerned about such things.
      But what is a problem is a growing tendency to see the strangers involved in this global disaster as somewhat less than human – to see them as barbarians or terrorists or to focus on the niqab that some women wear. These are all terms that have been freely thrown around in our political discourse and it is worrying to say the least. Some people have been using this kind of language in an attempt to direct the Canadian population in some dangerous directions.
       As I say, I think it is important that this kind of dehumanizing attitude is found in the scriptures. It teaches us that, if the Ancient Israelites had to deal with such attitudes, we have to be prepared to as well. But it would not be good if Psalm 137 were the final word on the attitude we should have towards our enemies. Fortunately, it is not.
      We get another point of view, ironically enough, from one of the most violent and war-minded books of the Bible: the Book of Joshua. In that book, Joshua, the great commander of the forces that are about to sweep through the land of Canaan and to conquer it for the children of Israel has an amazing encounter. He is out walking through his army’s camp when he comes across a soldier – a man he does not know, standing there fully armed with a drawn sword.
      Joshua responds to this, like any of us would, by saying, Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” – “Are you a friend or an enemy.” What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he is not confronting just any soldier but a heavenly warrior – the commander of God’s own army. In fact, the suggestion is, he is in the very presence of God. So this ordinary battlefield question – “friend or foe” – actually turns into the great question that people ask in war: is God on our side. And usually the answer to that question is an unqualified yes, of course God is on our side. We almost have to believe that.
      But God has a very different answer for Joshua: “Neither;” he says, “I’m neither on your side nor on the other but as commander of the army of the LordI have now come.” God doesn’t take sides. God certainly doesn’t see your enemies as dehumanized monsters as much as you might like him too. God won’t approve of bashing the little ones against the rocks just because their parents are Babylonians. I wish we could all learn the lesson that Joshua gained that day in his camp.
      Jesus took that kind of approach even further. He felt it wasn’t enough to just see your enemy as a fellow human. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus challenged his followers, “‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That saying of Jesus is, in its own way, almost as hard for us to hear as that passage from the Psalm about bashing babies against the rocks. In many ways, loving enemies is much more objectionable than is treating them as somehow less than human.
      Of course, in this saying, Jesus was acknowledging that we do have enemies – that, in this dark world, there are people who will be out to get us, to destroy our way of life and even all the good that is in the world. He was being utterly realistic and he was speaking to people who knew very well who their enemies were.
      But it was out of that very realistic view of the world that Jesus brought the command to love your enemies. He said that you had to love them, not for the sake of those enemies who, realistically probably couldn’t care less about your love for them. He said that you had to love them for your own sake – so that you could be all that you were created to be, so that you could be like God, in fact, who could never hate even those who hate him.
      The world is a dark place where there are people who will hate us, threaten us and attack us. That hasn’t changed and that is why we can and must honour the memory of those heroes who put their lives on the line for the sake of all that is good about our country.
      But at the same time, we must never forget that God calls us to see more in the world than just that. He calls us to understand that even those who would destroy us are humans made in God’s image. We cannot rob them of their humanity without robbing ourselves of our own. Are we always going to live up to what Jesus calls us to do – will we always be able to love those enemies? I suspect not. But what Jesus asked for must ever be before us. That is our challenge. Whatever we do, however, we must not give into hatred and treating people as less than human. That is a very dangerous path to go down.

      
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Is it really about freedom of conscience?

Posted by on Friday, November 6th, 2015 in Minister

Freedom of conscience clause eliminated by Church of Iceland

I was reading the above news item from the church of Iceland and some of the online discussion around it today. The reactions that I was read mostly seemed to be from people who have serious theological objections to participation in same sex marriages. The tone of the comments was basically: "See, this is why we can't give an inch on same sex marriage. If we give an inch, they'll take a mile and take away our freedom of conscience to refuse."

It was making me think a lot about what I believe about freedom of conscience.

I really do believe in freedom of conscience. I believe that, when people struggle in good faith with the meaning of the Biblical text and come to a conviction about how they should act, we ought to do what we can to give them the freedom to live out their faith according to their conscience.

There are, of course, some limits to that. We couldn't possibly tolerate someone who sincerely believed, for example, that the Bible was telling them to commit genocide. So there are limits and some of those limits will be hard to work out, but I really do feel that freedom of conscience is a valuable thing and that we should do what we can to protect it.

But there is something that puzzles me in this discussion. People seem to be talking under the assumption that we have freedom of conscience now and we don't - not by a long shot.

What about the many friends I have who have struggled with the scriptures and what they say about homosexuality, relationships and family and have come to the conclusion that there is no good scriptural reason for them to refuse to perform the marriage of a same sex couple - that it would be morally wrong, in fact, if they refused. Do they have the freedom to act according to their conscience? No, they don't at this time.

Now, to be completely honest, I do largely agree with the reasoning and biblical interpretation of these friends of mine, but that is not the point. If I believe in freedom of conscience, it should not matter whether I agree with the conclusions of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I should be willing to do whatever I can to protect that freedom. (And if someone comes back to me and says that they are free to pursue their ministry in another denomination, I would ask, "Well, don't the ministers in the Church of Iceland have that same freedom? So what are you complaining about?)

So, if people are arguing that we need to protect freedom of conscience for people who feel that they cannot participate in same sex marriages by denying freedom of conscience to those whose conscience tells them that they need to participate, we have a problem.

It makes me think that freedom of conscience is not the issue here.

I do hope that our church finds a way to allow people to act according to their conscience. That is important and valuable to me. That is not where we are now.
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Script Out Passages: The men of her town shall take her and stone her to death.

Posted by on Sunday, November 1st, 2015 in Minister

St. Andrew's Stars Episode that goes with this sermon:



Hespeler, November 1, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 22:13-30, Matthew 21:28-32, Psalm 72:1-14
I
f you are going to look at the passages of the Bible that people sometimes struggle with and maybe even sometimes wish weren’t there at all, you are going to end up, sooner or later, talking about sexual morality. Well, today is that day and we are going to delve into some of the sexual themed passages of the Bible.
      Talking to some people, of course, you will definitely get the impression that the Bible is all about sexual morality, that the only thing that matters, as far as the Bible is concerned, is what happens in the bedroom. Certainly when you hear somebody complain about how nobody follows Biblical morality anymore, you can be almost certain that the morality that they have in mind is the sexual kind. For many people, that is the only Biblical morality that matters.
      Now, is it actually true that the Bible is totally obsessed with sexual morality? Not really. At most, sex is just one of many moral subjects that the Bible spends time talking about. It is a concern, but it’s not as central as some would make it out to be. And there are some things that Bible does say on the subject that we would have trouble with. And I’m not saying that because I think that so many of us are liberal-minded people. There is lots of what the Bible says about sex that even the most conservative among us would find downright immoral and perhaps even evil.
      Much of the Bible takes it for granted, for example, that polygamy is fine and dandy. King Solomon, one of the great heroes of the biblical tradition, had over 700 wives and 300 concubines. It
is also taken for granted that, if a woman is unable to have a child, she can force her maidservant to sleep with her husband and bear a child for her. Fathers are permitted to sell their daughters into sexual slavery, women can be forced to marry the men who rape them and should also be stoned to death if their hymen doesn’t bleed on their wedding night. These are all things that do not fit with what we would call good and positive sexual morality and many of them we would even condemn as abusive and criminal.
      But even more troubling than the specific laws and practices that are found in the Bible, are the assumptions that lie behind them. Look, for example, at the laws of sexual morality that we read from the Book of Deuteronomy this morning and ask the question what are the assumptions behind those laws. These laws assume, for example, that virginity is very important – but only female virginity. The sexual history of a man never seems to be a concern.
      Nevertheless, female virgin­ity was clearly something that was valued. In fact, it was so valued that, if it was questioned or stolen by rape, it was given a cash value – a compensation that had to be paid. But here’s the thing. The compensation was always to be paid, not to the woman, but to her father. The underlying assumption was that the father (not the woman herself) was the victim when a woman was raped or dishonoured in any way. That is kind of messed up, but that was clearly how they saw it.
      That is because of another, deeper assumption behind all of this – the assumption that a woman was not a person so much as she was a piece of property. She was a valuable asset who belonged to her father until she was passed onto someone else in marriage. That is why, if that asset was devalued in any way, some sort of compensation had to be paid to her “owner.”
      Another assumption is clear: marriage was a transaction. It was sometimes a straight-up economic transaction where a woman was sold in exchange for wealth or property. It was sometimes a social transaction where families allied themselves through marriage to build up their standing in the community. But there was always something to be gained (for the men involved at least) through marriage. Women could also at least hope for some sort of economic security through marriage, but that was about the only benefit theygot.
      One thing that marriage was definitely not about was love. That is not to say that couples didn’t sometimes love one another. We are told, for example, the Patriarch Jacob did love one of his four wives. King David was apparently also quite fond of one or two of his wives. We are never told, in the Bible about women who were in love with their husbands because nobody cared about that. But anyways, perhaps some who were lucky would find love or domestic harmony in marriage, but that clearly wasn’t what marriage was about.
      A woman’s desires or wishes didn’t matter at all. But I personally don’t think that the nature of human beings – men and women – has changed all that much in the last few thousand years, so I am pretty sure that both men and women did have desires and wishes and even (gasp) urges back then. So what did a woman who had been engaged to marry a man that she had never met by her family and who fell in love with another man who wanted to be with her do? Such a woman had no recourse. If she met and slept with her beloved in the city, they’d both be stoned to death – he for raping her and she for failing to cry out. If they met in the countryside, she would survive and he would die so that was not much better.
      And that brings us to the question of consent. Consent, for modern people is absolutely essential to the moral and legal definition of rape. Basically, for our modern legal system and for most of our moral judgements, if someone has sex with someone else without their freely given consent, that is just plain wrong and usually falls under the definition of rape. When you consider that certain classes of beings (including children) are not considered to be competent to give their consent, that really covers a wide range of sexual offenses.
      Interestingly enough, the Bible seems to have pretty much the same definition of rape – it defines it as sex without consent. But here is the difference: in that society, no woman of any age was considered competent to give consent. Consent was something that could only be given by her father or by some other controlling male in her life. This is because of the other key assumption lying behind all of these laws: that a woman wasn’t a person and certainly wasn’t, by any measure, equal to any man.
      So here is our problem: there are important moral issues around how people live out their sexuality. As Christians we need some help to make right choices around sexuality. As a church, we surely should have some worthwhile and helpful things to say on the subject. But, after examining passages like this one, I really have to wonder what we’re supposed to base those things on because to lift up these particular laws, that make cultural assumptions that we just don’t agree with, doesn’t make sense.
      And, let me be clear here: I do see these things as cultural assumptions and not as fundamental truths. Whatever the people of Israel understood of the justice and righteousness and faithfulness of their God – an understanding that developed over time – it was filtered through their culture and all of the assumptions that came with that culture. How could it be otherwise? Just like they assumed that the earth was flat and that the sky was a solid blue dome and filtered their understanding of the creator that they had come to know through those assumptions, they filtered the moral nature of their God through their cultural baggage.
      So we don’t have to take on these ancient cultural assumptions ourselves just because they lie behind these biblical laws. But, of course, if we don’t accept the assumptions they are based on, how can we just take the Biblical laws and rules around sexuality and apply them uncritically today? How can we judge people morally by laws that are based on assumptions that we don’t agree with? That is our problem.
      So we need to develop a sense of sexual morality – what is acceptable and what isn’t. In fact, I would suggest that our society is in deep need for some guidance about how to live out our sexual lives and relationships. But we are going to have to do more than just read laws and rules out of the Bible and apply them directly to today. Nevertheless, the Bible can help us a great deal as we seek to do this.
      There are principles that we can take from the Bible and apply to modern relationships, provided that we find ways to correct the underlying assumptions. For example, we do find this notion of consent in the Bible – that sex needs to be consensual to be positive. Of course, when we look at it we find the assumption that a woman isn’t competent to give consent – that only her father can give it for her – to be ridiculous. But the correctives for that flawed assumption can be found in the Bible itself. We see it in the life and ministry of ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who treated the women he met with dignity and respect – who recognized that they were autonomous persons capable of making their own decisions.
      Do you realize, after all, how radical that saying of Jesus in our gospel reading this morning is? “Truly I tell you,” he said, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He was talking to religious people, very self-righteous religious people, and told them that prostitutes were ahead of them in God’s kingdom. I’m sure that if you had been standing there you would have seen all of their jaws drop when he said it.
      They were standing there feeling so certain that they knew who the sinners were and that it wasn’t them. They especially thought that women who strayed, even just a little, from the strict sexual rules, and especially women who dared to take control of their own lives and bodies, were wicked. All such women were despised and treated as prostitutes and yet Jesus dared to elevate these women ahead of these self-righteous men. I think that that is a pretty fair indicator that Jesus felt that grown women were able to take control of consent for what happened to their bodies.
      So we can take the basic principles we find in the Bible and yet use the words and actions of Jesus to give a correction to the mistaken underlying attitudes. I think that we can do the same thing with laws around the valuing of virginity, the need for fidelity and the respect for boundaries. There are good principles that are found in the Old Testament laws. So long as we can correct for any negative cultural assumptions like the inequality of the sexes or the loss of freedom of choice by referring to the teachings of Jesus and the early church, these biblical principles can still serve us well.
      I would say that I do have a sexual morality – a morality that is, in my view biblically based even though I don’t just try and lift Old Testament laws and apply them today and I do not see some things as previous generations of Christians might have. I believe that sex is a very good thing. It is not just given for procreation but also to bring many positive blessings in relationship. I believe that it is God’s intention that sex be experienced in committed and loving relationships where both parties are treated with respect and valued for who they are. It is in such relationships that sex can find its highest and best expression as God intended.
      I do think that we are all called to do our best to encourage relationships and institutions (like marriage) and supports to relationships in which sex in its best form can flourish. That doesn’t mean that I am interested in coming down in judgement on those who haven’t been able to find that yet and I am certainly not going to condemn people for their past mistakes, especially when they are working on correcting them. Nevertheless, I don’t think we need to apologize for being committed to making sex as good at God intended it to be.
      My desire, above all, is to define sex positively. There has been too much negativity around this good gift of God down through the Christian centuries. I look forward to getting out from under that kind of negative cultural baggage.
      I am not saying, of course, that you should just adopt my understanding and approach to sexual morality. What I am saying, though, is that there is something that you need to work out here. You can’t just lift your notions of what is right and what is wrong from the pages of Scripture – not without examining what is says and what it is assuming. That can be hard work, but I think it is very important and worthwhile work.

Sermon video:



      
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Script Out Passages: Elisha, the Boys and the Bears

Posted by on Sunday, October 18th, 2015 in Minister



Hespeler, 18 October, 2015 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Psalm 25:1-13, Mark 10:13-16, 2 Kings 2:15-25
I
f you swallow your chewing gum, what will happen to it? Everybody knows the answer to that! If you swallow your gum, it will sit in your stomach and it will take seven years to digest – seven years! How do I know that? Bobby, my very best friend in the second grade told me so. And it was confirmed by all my ther friends too. So it must be true.
      Now, is it true in the strictest sense? If you were to actually do an MRI on a kid who made a habit of swallowing chewing gum, would you find any evidence of gum that had been in the digestive tract for several years? (Yes, there are pediatricians who have looked, at least while they there were searching for other things.) And the answer is no. In the strictest sense it isn’t exactly true and you wouldn’t find any gum that had been there for more than a week. But, all the same, you might say that it is kind of trueish.
      It is true, after all, that the main ingredients of chewing gum are not able to be broken down by your body. It is true that it has happened that chronic gum swallowers have managed to create intestinal blockages in rare cases. So, while an occasional swallowed piece of gum will not hurt you at all, it actually is something that is better avoided.
      I do not know who created the seven year story about chewing gum. For all I know, it is as old as chewing gum
itself. (And there is actually evidence that human beings have been chewing gum for about 3000 years.) The story has endured because, while it is not strictly true, there is enough truth in it to be useful. In particular, it has persisted because parents who have wanted to shape their children’s behaviour in helpful ways have found it a very useful story. If you want to judge the story, therefore, you need to judge it, not on scientific terms, but on the terms of how the story is actually used.
      That is something that I hope you keep in mind as we turn to our Old Testament reading this morning. When I posted my little Script Out commercial video on the internet and asked people to respond back to me with what they thought of as the worst passages in the Bible (the stories and sayings that, as far as they were concerned, they’d just as soon weren’t in the Bible at all) the first response I got was from someone who brought up the story of Elisha, the 42 boys and the two she-bears.
      You can understand why. The small boys in this story do not behave as they should. They fail to show due respect for a man who deserves some respect. Elisha is a man of God who has taken on the difficult and demanding job of speaking the word of the Lord to the people. The boys insult him in two ways. They insult him for being bald and men, as we all know, can be a bit sensitive about male pattern baldness. The boys also appear to insult him with the words, “go away,” which may also be translated as, “go up.” This is probably meant to be a reference to how the Prophet Elijah, Elisha’s teacher and master, has recently disappeared and, according to the story that has spread around, has gone directly up into heaven riding on a chariot of fire. They are taunting him by saying that he should do as his master has done.
      But, whatever exactly the young lads mean with their taunts, there is no question that they are not showing a lot of respect to Elisha when they say, “Go away, baldhead.” They are clearly showing disrespect and no one disputes that. The thing that people have problems with is the reaction to that disrespect. First, Elisha curses the boys. A bit extreme, perhaps, but, if it is the equivalent of saying “Darn you crazy kids,” I guess it’s not a totally terrible thing to say.
      But, apparently, it’s not just “darn you crazy kids.” We are certainly left with the impression that Elisha’s curse is immediately effective and that it is, in fact, the cause of the sudden appearance of two murderous female bears.
      Now wait one minute here. I get that these kids were disrespectful, and perhaps deserved some punishment for that. I could see giving them a time out, making them write some lines on the chalkboard: “I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead. I will not call people baldhead.”
      But how can you call a murderous rampage by the local wildlife a reasonable punishment? And, let me tell you, if that was what this story was all about, I might argue that we need to get rid of it. But I’m not convinced that that is what it’s about.
      I think we need to ask the question, what is the purpose of this story? Why was it told in the first place? Why was it remembered and eventually written down? Why was it felt to be important enough to be preserved in a book that eventually made it into our Bibles? I don’t think that anyone did any of that because they felt that this story was a good example of how to treat disrespectful children.
      If you look at this passage, it’s pretty clear what purpose the stories that we read this morning had. They are stories that were told to establish the reputation of a very important biblical figure: the Prophet Elisha. Elisha was the man who succeeded the greatest prophet that Israel had ever known: Elijah. Elijah had done amazing things: he had challenged the king of Israel to his face, he had taken on the prophets of Ba’al singlehandedly and defeated them. What’s more, these amazing stories had accumulated around the figure of Elijah: miracles, wonders and signs. That is the act that Elisha had to follow.
      It is like what happens in a church when a new minister comes in following the ministry of a beloved and dynamic minister. The new minister constantly finds herself or himself being measured up against the old – a process that can frankly be rather draining and dispiriting (because we all need to be appreciated for who we are). Understandably Elisha, and maybe especially his disciples and faithful supporters, felt the need to establish the new guy’s reputation. But how do you do that? You obviously do it by spreading around stories that mark your guy as the one to watch.
      And that is exactly what we see in the Book of Kings. Stories about miracles and wonders began to spring up wherever Elisha went. That is not to say, of course, that these stories weren’t based in reality. Sure, I can believe that Elisha did perform wonders, but the point of those stories was not merely to report what had happened. The stories were told and remembered and passed down in order to establish the credentials of God’s newest prophet.
      The story of the she-bears is a perfect example. What is actually told in this story? It says that when Elisha was passing through someplace on his way to Bethel, he was disrespected by some local children and he cursed them: “Darn you crazy kids!” Now, the story is told in such a way as to imply that the bear attack was brought on by the curse. But I hope you noticed it doesn’t actually say that the curse caused the bears to attack. The timing is also kind of deliberately vague. The story once again implies that the bear attack happened immediately after the curse, but it doesn’t quite say that. It could have happened any time after.
      I can imagine that it happened kind of like this. There was a bear attack – the kind of tragedy that can and does happen in any place where human settlements are built up within the habitat of predators like bears – the kind of tragedy the undoubtedly did happen from time to time in ancient Israel as much as in other ancient societies. And when tragedies like that happen, what do people do? People start asking why. Why did this terrible thing happen?
      And somebody said, “Remember when that Prophet, that man Elisha, passed through a few weeks ago? Maybe some of the kids (in fact, I think it could have been some of those same kids who got killed by the bears) made fun of the prophet. Did some of you see that?”
      And everybody solemnly nodded. They nodded even if they didn’t actually remember such an incident or if the events were being exaggerated because, when tragedy happens, people are so often desperate to make sense of it that they will grasp onto any explanation that seems to work – even if that means blaming the victims of a tragedy. Was it true that their disrespect caused the attack? No. The Bible is actually careful not to draw a direct line between curse and effect. But people held onto that explanation because it promised to give sense to something that was otherwise senseless.
      But the story wasn’t remembered and passed down because of that false meaning. It was remembered and passed down because the story eventually made its way to the disciples of Elisha who grabbed onto it because, for them, it illustrated the importance of the prophet that they revered and it underlined the need to treat prophets with respect. And that’s why the story is in our Bibles – because it had a particular usefulness within a particular community. Yes, maybe sometimes parents told the story to disrespectful children to scare them into behaving better, kind of like parents tell the story about the gum that takes seven years to digest to scare their children into not swallowing their gum, but no one seriously believed that it was literally true in the sense that there were bears prowling around looking for disrespectful children. You need to judge the story according to how the story was used and according to the meaning that the people who told it put into it.
      Of course, on a day like this, when we have had the joy and the privilege to welcome a little infant named Olivia into the life of the church through the sacrament of baptism, I can’t help but wonder what this ancient story that was used to build up the reputation of the Prophet Elisha might have to say to us.
      It is true that people still sometimes take the attitude that is behind the story and apply it to the place and role of children in the church. There are certainly people who get upset, from time to time, at the presence of children in the life of the church because they can be disruptive, unpredictable and noisy. Sometimes people interpret that as disrespect and while I have never heard anyone who would have wanted to see anything like an attack of killer bears, people have gotten pretty upset.
      And it is true that respect for our spiritual leaders is important. They are people whom God has uniquely gifted and called to key roles and when we fail to respect those roles and offices, the church can become a very negative place. But, honestly, if we are looking for an application of the story of Elisha, the boys and the she-bears to the life of the church, it is not the children that I would be concerned about. Children are just being who they were made to be. This story was told to teach adultsabout respect for the prophet, not the children.
      And look what happened to Jesus when he found himself in a similar situation. These women were bringing their little children up to him and the disciples were concerned that these kids might somehow do or say something that might disrespect the growing importance and reputation of Jesus. So the disciples took on the role of the she-bears: attacking the children, not with claws, of course, but with words. But Jesus rebuked them, making it perfectly clear that that is not how we must apply that story.
      In fact, Jesus didn’t just say that the children could come, he said that the kingdom of God belonged to them and that they were the ones to teach others how to enter it. In essence, Jesus took the story of the boys and the she-bears and turned it all on its head. He was saying that, instead of being critical of the children and their ways, we ought to learn from them as we seek to be part of the kingdom of God ourselves.
      In effect, it is almost as if Jesus is saying to us today that, of all the people who are gathered here, Olivia is the one who really gets it. That is humbling for the rest of us, I know, but hopefully it is a teachable moment as well.
      The story of Elisha, the boys and the bears is shocking. It was meant to be. But sometimes, when we are dealing with the scriptures, we need to look beyond the shock factor in a verse to find another meaning that actually can apply to our lives in constructive ways. This, I think, is one such passage.

      
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Caesar’s Census, God’s Jubilee, A Christmas Pageant

Posted by on Thursday, October 15th, 2015 in Minister

A couple of years ago, I wrote a Christmas pageant for my congregation and I wanted to make this pageant available to churches who are looking for a fresh and unique approach to the Christmas story. This pageant is based on the book I published in 2013 and I would refer you to that book for further information.

Click here for more information on the book.


I am releasing this pageant under a Creative Common "Share and Share Alike" license which means you are allowed to use it and to adapt it freely and the only stipulation is that the original author is to be acknowledged. You must also be open to sharing any adaptions of the pageant you make available freely.

The script follows. If you would like to view, download and print a PDF file, please click here.


Caesar’s Census, God’s Jubilee. A Christmas Pageant
by Scott McAndless

Caesar’s Census, God’s Jubilee. A Christmas Pageant by W. Scott McAndless is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at
http://revstandrewshespeler.blogspot.ca/.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
http://revstandrewshespeler.blogspot.ca/.
Note: This Christmas Pageant is based only on the nativity story as told Luke 1:1-2:20 with reference to Acts 5:37. No effort has been made to harmonize the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke with the one found in the Gospel of Matthew. The reasoning for such an approach may be found in my book, “Caesar’s Census, God’s Jubilee” (available on Amazon in paperback and in ebook format from most ebook retailers).

 

Scene 1: A Hill in Galilee

Judas stands looking out over the landscape. He seems troubled and lost in thought.
Narrator: In the days when Quirinius was the Governor of Syria, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, took direct control of the land of Judea. He ordered a census of the population and imposed heavy new taxes. These actions greatly disturbed a Galilean named Judas and his friend Zadok.
Enter Zadok.
Zadok: Peace be with you, Judas.
Judas:Hello, Zadok, I don’t think I can wish you peace. How can there be peace when the Romans are doing such things?
Zadok: Yes, I’ve heard – the census, the new taxes. They’ll end up turning people out of their homes and make us all into slaves!
Judas: You are a Pharisee, what do you think God would say about it?
Zadok: What would God say? God would say that he wants his people to be free. He wants them to live on their own land and serve God alone.
Judas: And how does God make that happen?
Zadok: How? A year of Jubilee! Everyone should return to the place where their ancestors lived and claim their freedom and their land. (Laughs) But there’s no way that’s going to happen!
Judas: Why not?
Zadok: Well, the Romans certainly aren’t going to call for a jubilee. They’re the ones taking our land and making us slaves. Especially right now – if everyone started traveling for a jubilee now, it would totally mess up their precious census that they’re taking.
Judas: (Thoughtfully) Yes it would, wouldn’t it.?
Zadok: (realizing what his friend is thinking) Oh no, Judas, you wouldn’t! We’d get in so much trouble!
Judas: Come with me, my friend. Let’s talk to the others.
Narrator:Judas had a plan – a bold plan and a fiendish plan. A plan that would have greater consequences than even he could imagine.

Scene 2 – The village of Nazareth

Narrator: In the little village of Nazareth nothing much ever happened so people often spent their time gossiping about other people’s lives.
Villager 1: Hey, have you heard the latest news?
Villager 2:What is it?
Villager 1:Young Mary is engaged to be married.
Village 2:Oh, that is big news, who is she going to marry?
Villager 1:Joseph, the son of Heli, that’s who!
Villager:No! Way!
Villager:But Joseph is just a carpenter. He has no land. He isn’t even from around here. His family comes from someplace in Judea.
Villager:From Bethlehem, I know. What can he offer to Mary? What were her parents’ thinking?
Villager: (Pointing to Mary and Joseph who are about to enter) Oh, that might have something to do with it!
Mary and Joseph enter. Mary is clearly pregnant.
Villager:Congratulations, Mary. We heard the news.
They gather around congratulating her.
Narrator:But, in the year of the census, there were suddenly big developments to talk about:
Enter a rebel blowing a horn.
Rebel:Jubilee! Jubilee! It is the year of Jubilee!
The crowd gathers around him.
Crowd: (All speaking at once) Jubilee? How can that be? etc.
Rebel: Yes, it is the jubilee. You must all return to the place your family came from. You must claim your land and your freedom!!
Villager:Wait a second, who says it is Jubilee? Who called for this?
Rebel: It is God’s will. Judas the Galilean is the one who declared this in God’s name.
Villagers discuss together.
Narrator:Some of the people of Nazareth didn’t like the sound of that. Judas was a rebel. Anyone who helped him in any way was likely to be killed. How they could anyone celebrate a jubilee that Judas called for?
Joseph steps forward.
Joseph: I will honour this call to Jubilee. I will return to Bethlehem, to the land that my people once owned and I will claim it as mine because that is God’s will.
Mary: I… I am going with him. I am God’s servant and if jubilee is God’s will, I must obey the call too.
The rebel runs off shouting “Jubilee” and blowing the horn. The villagers discuss together.
Narrator: There was a great deal for the people of Nazareth to talk about that year! Some tried to talk Mary and Joseph out of going. Others vowed that they would make a jubilee journey too.
Mary and Joseph travel pick up some luggage and head off.
Narrator: In the end Mary and Joseph did set out for Bethlehem in Judea. Many others also set out for their ancestral homes. They weren’t exactly disobeying Caesar’s order regarding the census. But in their hearts they knew that what they were really doing was obeying God’s call to jubilee.

Scene 3 – In front of a house in Bethlehem


Mary and Joseph approach the front door of the house.
Joseph:Well, Mary, here we are. It’s been a long hard trip but we have finally arrived at the land that once belonged to my family.
Mary: What happened? How did your family lose it?
Joseph: The usual way. They couldn’t pay their bills, the family was starving, they borrowed money that they knew they’d never pay back...
Mary: ...and you lost everything – ended up as landless carpenters in Nazareth far from home.
Joseph: But now I’m back. We’ll see what happens now.
Joseph knocks. The landlord opens the door
Landlord:Who are you? What do you want?
Joseph: I am Joseph, son of Heli. My family owned this property ever since God gave this land to his people.
Landlord:Yeah? So?
Mary: It is the year of jubilee. You must return the land to its rightful owners. It is God’s law.
Landlord: (Laughing) Oh yeah? And who’s going to make me? You? Go on, get out of here!
(Landlord starts to close the door.)
Joseph:Okay, okay. I did not really expect you to follow God’s will. But there is one thing... it’s my wife, Mary,
Mary: My child is coming very soon. I feel it.
Joseph:Maybe you won’t give me the house that should be mine. But surely you will offer us hospitality – especially in our time of need.
Landlord:Hospitality eh? Sure, I’ll give you hospitality. I think that there’s an old manger out in the back field. Why don’t you lay your brat in there?
Landlord laughs and slams the door as Mary and Joseph head off.
Narrator:And so it came to pass that, when the child was born, he did not have a home or even a decent place to stay. He was laid in a manger in a field. Yet it was a beginning that promised great things.

Scene 4 – A field behind the house


A child lies in the manger. Mary lies on the ground by a little fire that is slowly glowing. She is asleep, wrapped in a blanket. Joseph sits contemplating the child in the manger.

Narrator: It is dark, well past midnight, and in the middle of the field where they found the manger, the small family is huddled near a little fire. Joseph sits and watches the infant sleeping in the manger. It is a boy, just like Mary had assured him it would be—a tiny little boy who sleeps contentedly for the moment, his stomach full of milk.
Narrator: The boy’s mother also sleeps, rolled in a blanket nearby, taking advantage of the brief respite from the babe’s demands. Joseph, though he has every reason to be exhausted, finds that he is wide awake.
Narrator: It is a beautiful night, the stars blaze down from a moonless, cloudless sky and he is content to simply marvel at the sight of the child sleeping and watch his little chest rising and falling underneath the swaddling clothes.
Narrator: Suddenly the babe stirs. He grimaces and for a moment Joseph fears that he is about to wake. And he knows that if the child cries, it will wake Mary and she really needs her rest.
Joseph picks up the baby and paces with him, trying to calm him.
Joseph: (To the child) Shhhhhhalom. Shhhhhalom.
Narrator:“Shalom,” Joseph says to the child. The word means “peace,” which gets him thinking about peace. 
Narrator:There were some local shepherds who came by earlier this night telling wild stories:
Shepherds appear.
Shepherd:We were just minding our own business, taking care of our sheep.
Shepherd:All of a sudden there were angels everywhere!
Shepherd:They sang about peace on earth and people of good will.
Shepherds:(All together) It was totally awesome!
Narrator:The Romans always talk about peace. They say that that is what their empire is all about. But when they talk about peace, what they really mean is that, once they have defeated all of their enemies, no one will be left who is strong enough to resist whatever they want to do. Who needs that kind of peace?
Narrator:But now, sitting here, watching the child sleep and thinking of the strange words of the shepherds, he wonders if there couldn’t be another kind of peace—one that doesn’t come at the point of a sword—a peace from heaven.
Narrator: Joseph has always been taught that the land is a gift of God to all the families of Israel. The gift came, in the ancient days, by means of God’s servant Joshua. It came through conquest and battle and violence. That is why Joseph has always assumed that, if the land is ever to be reclaimed for the families of Israel, it will have to be through more violence.
Narrator: But the words of the shepherds and the sight of this child of promise sleeping so peacefully have made Joseph think differently about such things. Perhaps what they really need now is not for the old Joshua and his ways to return. Perhaps the need is for a new Joshua and a new way.
Narrator: That is why Joseph has decided that the boy will be named Joshua. He knows it’s the right name for this child. In Aramaic (the common speech of the people), it will be…
Joseph:Yeshua!
Narrator: Joseph doesn’t know this, but in Greek—the language spoken throughout the Eastern Empire, the language of Caesar and all his minions—the child’s name will mean the same thing but it will sound different for in Greek, someday, they will call him Jesus.

This video version of the pageant was made in 2013:




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Script Out Texts: Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion

Posted by on Sunday, October 11th, 2015 in Minister




Hespeler, 11 October, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 1:26-2:3, Mark 10:35-45, Psalm 24
     There is so much that is so right about the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving. It is a day to be thankful, but thankful in very particular ways. We especially focus on the good things that are provided to us by the earth itself – the fruits and vegetables, the bountiful harvest, the grain, the meat and the wonderful foods that we can create when we put them all together.

      It is good to be thankful for these things because they are good things provided for our blessing. And, yes, one of the ways in which we connect to our thankfulness for these things can be by overindulging in them. I don’t know about you, but I fully intend to express my thankfulness specifically for turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy in some very concrete ways when I gather with my family at my sister’s place tomorrow. These things are not just given for our sustenance but also so that we might rejoice in abundance.
      So it is all good, but is there not also a potential dark side to the notion of these things having been provided for us. God’s gift of all these things for our benefit is described to us in that famous passage in Genesis that we read this morning. God has been busy creating the world and on the sixth day he comes to what humans call the great climax of his work of creation – the creation of humanity. (Of course, if you asked the fish, for example, what they thought was the most important day of creation, they might have a different answer!)
      Anyway, on the sixth day, God creates people: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” And to these newly made people God gives a very interesting command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
      Now, people have been reading that particular verse of scripture for a long time. And, for most of that time, they have seen that verse as being very positive. After all, for most of human history, the world has been a pretty scary and dangerous place. The world seemed to be out to get us. We were hunted by terrible beasts. There was constant danger of starvation and disease. The earth itself seemed to be an enemy that had to be defeated and subdued.
      And so that is what we set out to do – to tame the world, to dominate it and to reshape it to suit our own needs and desires. And, folks, we’ve been hugely successful at it. We’ve gotten very efficient at finding the earth’s resources, extracting them and using them to make life comfortable and productive and profitable to suit ourselves.
      But there’s a problem. As we have grown and developed as a human race, we have grown more and more efficient at dominating the earth until today we are without any doubt and question the most dominant species on the planet. Just about everything that lives on this planet is directly impacted by human activity in one way or another. You might even say that that command given by God in the first chapter of Genesis, “fill the earth and subdue it,” has finally been fulfilled in our own time.
      But, just when we’re finally dominating the earth so much, we suddenly begin to realize that this might not really be such a good thing as we once thought. Sure we can extract the many riches from the earth, but such mining can take a terrible toll. Huge territories are devastated and the wildlife they support are killed. We show our mastery and ingenuity by doing such things as extracting the crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands, clear-cutting old growth forests, damming mighty rivers and even harnessing the energy found in an atom. Pretty powerful stuff, but a lot of it has negative impacts on the natural environment – entire lakes poisoned by tailings from the mines, species pushed into extinction by the loss of habitat and so much carbon dioxide being pumped into the air that it is actually changing the climate of an entire planet.
      And when we raise objections to all this devastation, what is the response? The Christian answer seems to be, “Well, what are you going to do? We’re only doing what we were told to do – we are subduing the earth and exercising our dominion. This is war, us against the earth – that is the language that is used in Genesis, after all – and in a war there are always casualties and collateral damage.”
      That is why a lot of people aren’t so happy with this particular verse from Genesis. And I must confess that there are times when I am one of those unhappy people. It seems to be a part of the problem. And the ironic thing is that this verse, that once gave humanity the attitude and approach that allowed us to survive on this planet, may end up destroying us. What if we end up dominating the earth to such an extent that it becomes no longer able to sustain human life? That is what Stephen Hawking warned about a few years ago. He said that, unless human beings are able to colonize other planets (which may well be impossible) we may find ourselves trapped on an unliveable planet. And I’ve heard that Stephen Hawking is a pretty smart guy. So maybe it would be better for all of us if this verse wasn’t in the Bible at all.
      But wait, before we just get rid of it, maybe we had better ask if we’ve really understood it and applied it like we should. Let’s look at the verse in its context. This command to subdue is but one small part of a much longer tale of creation. In the seven-day narrative, God’s work is portrayed not so much as creating things out of nothing – although he does do that too – but God’s more important task seems to be to impose an order on all that exists.
      On day one God creates light and then very carefully separates it from the darkness. God then spends the next two days sorting out the water – separating the water above from the water below, the water on this side from the water on that. Then God creates the sun, stars and planets. And these, we are told, he puts there to regulate the flow of the times and the seasons. Then it’s onto the creation of the animals. But the animals too are very carefully sorted out as they are created. As it is repeated again and again that each animal is made, “according to its kind.”
      So, basically, the picture we get of the Creator in these opening pages of the Bible is of a God who is imposing order on a chaotic universe – putting everything in its proper place, carefully balancing opposites of light and dark, water and land. It is as much an act of subjugation and dominion as it is of creation as God’s divine order is imposed on all that is made. And it is in this context that we must understand God’s command to the newly minted humans to subdue the earth. Basically, God is telling them to continue the work that God has begun. They are to rule in order to keep things sorted and balanced out.
      But, if that is the real intention of this command, then it means something quite different from, “Go out and rape the earth and make sure that you rip all of the wealth that you can out of it, no matter how much destruction you may cause.” It is a call to exercise leadership, certainly, but not the kind of leadership that we usually seem to find at the head of some corporation where they are willing to do whatever it takes to create more shareholder value. God seems, indeed, to be talking about the same kind of leadership that Jesus called his disciples to exercise: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” If God gave us dominion over the earth, the intention was not that we would simply exploit it for our own ends but rather that we would serve all creation and protect it from harm as much as we can.
      So I think that we have failed to understand this passage because we have failed to understand exactly what kind of dominion and subjugation God is talking about. God is talking about servant leadership and we have been thinking about exploitative leadership. No wonder we are having so many troubles.
      But there is something else – something deeper – about this story that we have also failed to understand. I have said already that most people who read this story conclude that the great climax of the story comes on the sixth day with the creation of humanity. But that is just a plain wrong conclusion. The climax of this story doesn’t come on the sixth day, it comes on the seventh. That is what this whole story of creation is about – that is why it is set up as a seven-day story in the first place. The whole point is to get you to the seventh day when you can experience rest and Sabbath.
      You don’t understand the point of creation when you get to day six and humanity is handed dominion over the earth. That’s just a step on the path. You only understand it when you get to day seven and you discover in the rest what God’s plans for the universe really are. The whole idea of the Sabbath is that you can at last have a day when you experience life as it should be.
      In other words, what I’m trying so say is that “fill the earth and subdue it” is not the Bible’s final word on our relationship with the environment. Sabbath is the final word. Yes, we as human beings are likely never going to stop exploiting this earth for our own profits in some ways. But we must never forget that we are called, I would suggest even more forcefully, to let the earth rest and regenerate. This was always part of God’s creation plan. And maybe if we learned this, the world would just be so much more sustainable over the long haul.
      So, I don’t know. I’m not quite ready to script out this passage. It may just have some real wisdom for us if we look in the right places. I also rather like reading it on Thanksgiving Sunday because I think that the distinction between exploiting the earth to get all of the profit out of it that we can stands out in sharp contrast to an attitude of thankfulness for all that we may receive. On this Sabbath Sunday and on the day of rest that I hope most of us also get tomorrow, let us remember the power of a thankful attitude as we offer both to the world and to ourselves some genuine rest in gratitude.
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Script Out Passages: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”

Posted by on Sunday, October 4th, 2015 in Minister



Hespeler, 4 October, 2015 © Scott McAndless – World Communion
Mark 9:42-49, Romans 16:17-20, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Since the beginning of September, as most of you will know, I have been talking about what I call the Script Outâ passages of the Bible – the verses that we love to hate for all kinds of reasons. What I haven’t told you is that I have done something like this before. I did a somewhat similar series of sermons at my last church where I chose to preach on the worst Bible passages I could find. I am a bit of a bear for punishment.
      That time, however, I did make one mistake. We had a prominent sign in front of the church and I had one man who would put my various sermon titles on the sign each week. Well, during this series, this guy came to me and asked me what he should put on the sign. I, foolishly, just wrote out the actual texts of the Bible verses I was preaching on and nothing more. I mean, who could object if we just put the actual words of the Bible in front of a church? And anyways, I had never had complaints about what appeared on the church sign!
      I got complaints about what appeared on the church sign. It was bad enough the week when I preached on the verse that says, “Women should be silent in the churches.” (1 Corinthian 14:3) In hindsight, I probably should have seen that one coming. But that was not the worst phone call I got. That one came on the week that I preached on this morning’s Script Outâ passage: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” I had someone call me up and tell me off for saying such a horrible thing. Of course, I didn’t say it. Apparently Jesus did.
      But I certainly had a lot of sympathy for the person who called me up. I too have a great many issues with that little saying of Jesus. I wouldn’t have too much trouble with it, perhaps, if I didn’t know how at least some people had read it down through the centuries. There have been too many Christians who have been far too quick to take this verse quite literally and start actually chopping off body parts in an effort to free themselves from sin. In ancient times, there was a saint named Origen who, in his youth, read this passage and decided that it was God’s instruction to him that he should mutilate himself and so he castrated himself.
      Many people think that Origen did come to regret what he had done in his youth – regretted it so much that he went onto develop an entire way of approaching the Scriptures in order to avoid literal interpretations. He had come to see how dangerous that could be. But the damage had clearly already been done for him. And Origen wasn’t the only one. There was a Christian sect in Russia, known as the Skoptsy, that also practiced self-mutilation in a quest for perfection and freedom from sin. It is scary to think that we have in our Bibles a text that really could drive people to such extreme and dangerous acts.
      So, absolutely, the first thing that I feel I must say about this passage is that it is not to be taken literally. To that end, I have made sure that there are absolutely no knives, axes or saws anywhere in the church this morning. (Okay, there are probably a few knives down in the kitchen but I don’t want anybody touching them, okay?) But, as much as I want that to be perfectly clear, how am I supposed
to know that for sure? I mean, is there anything in the passage that marks it – that makes it clear to the reader that you’re not supposed to take it literally? Surely it is not a good enough reason to say that we don’t take it literally because we don’t like where the literal meaning would lead us.
      One thing I see is that it is almost impossible to read it literally because a literal reading leads to absurd results. Look at this line: “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.” How could that possibly make any logical sense? In what possible reality can you imagine a person stumbling while walking with two feet finding a solution to that problem by choosing, instead, to try and walk only with one? That doesn’t make any sense.
      Nor do the other examples really make much sense. I mean, would anyone ever accept the excuse from someone who was arrested for shoplifting that it wasn’t their fault because their hand made them do it. Would anyone pardon someone who was charged with treason because they made the excuse that it was their eye’s fault, and so not theirs, that they looked at state secrets? Of course not! Though we might be tempted sometimes to blame our body and its desires for some of the things that we do that we later regret (Why did I let my stomach talk me into that extra piece of cake!), we all know that such excuses really don’t hold any water.
      So I really think that we can clearly reject the errors that people have made by reading this passage literally. But that alone is not good enough. It is not good enough just to avoid the worst possible abuses of a certain passage of Scripture because this is Scripture and, as such, something that has been given to us in order to be a blessing to us and not just something that we need to avoid the negative implications of.
      How can we then approach this passage so that it can be a real blessing to us? One thing that might help is not to take it too personally. The tendency is to assume that it is all about me as an individual – about my own personal righteousness and goodness and about getting me into heaven (or at least getting me out of hell).
      You see that particularly among those communities who did take this passage literally. The Russian Skoptsy, for example, congratulated themselves that, because of their physical sacrifices, they were obviously better, more pure and righteous than everyone else. When people start thinking that way, even if they don’t go in for self-harming, it usually does not end up in a good place.
      But what if Jesus never intended for this to be taken as a lesson on personal righteousness and purity? What if it wasn’t just about getting the individual right and pure with God? According to the Gospel of Mark, these sayings came up, not in the midst of discussions about personal righteousness but about how the community of disciples lived together – about who led and how they treated the “little ones.” What’s more, Jesus was talking about who belongs in the kingdom of God, which for him was always about community and how people treated one another.
      And what if the consequences of the “sin” he was talking about weren’t just about what we traditionally think of as heaven and hell. Jesus talks about entering the “kingdom of God,” which we often take to mean entering heaven after death. But I am convinced that most of the time, when Jesus was talking about the kingdom he was talking about a present reality – about experiencing the presence of God in this life. So maybe when he talks about avoiding “hell” and the “unquenchable fire,” he is also talking about avoiding a present reality as well – the particular hell that we build for ourselves when we hurt and wound and fight each other.
      That makes me think that maybe, a good application of what Jesus was really talking about in this passage might be found in the reading we had from the Letter to the Romans this morning. Paul addresses the Christians in Rome and says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.” You see, the sin that affects us all the most is the sin that occurs in community and particularly when people in a community get so caught up in their own appetites – taking care of what they see as their own needs and building their own little power centres – that they stop caring about how they might hurt others.
      You hate to think that such things can happen in the life of a church, a place that is supposed to be dedicated to peace and reconciliation, but they do. And the effects can be so destructive that the kind of response that Jesus was talking about may sometimes be necessary. Sometimes there are people who need to be cut off from the community of the church.
      That is not something that we generally practice in our church today. There was a time when it was very common. Today we will be celebrating communion and Presbyterians used to practice something called “fencing” the communion table. Prior to communion, instead of just inviting people to come to the table and share in communion, the minister would build an imaginary fence around it by telling the congregation who was not welcome to come to the table sometimes by saying which personal offenses disqualified them from coming and sometime by specifically naming the people who were not permitted to take communion.
      It was not a nice practice, especially because it was most often used as a way to control people’s personal lives and to impose a personal righteousness and purity that may not have been helpful. It was more about judging people than helping people. I’m not really all that interested in returning to that kind of practice. But I can’t help but think that there might be some times when people who are causing hurt to others need to be cut off from the community of the church.
      Yet, even there, actually telling someone that they can no longer be a part of the church is surely something that we ought not to have to resort to except in very extreme cases. For surely, when people do that, when they become so caught up in pursuing their own power or desires, that doesn’t come from nowhere. Often they will do it because, somewhere deep inside, they are struggling maybe with their own insecurities or because they are carrying around the wounds that other people have inflicted on their spirit.
      And, let me ask you, when someone is hurting other people in the church because they themselves were hurt by someone they trusted in the past or because they feel like they have to get everyone to do things their way because they never got the approval they needed when they were growing up (I only use these cases as made up examples but when there’s something like that going on), what needs to be cut off? In the vast majority of cases what is needed is not to cut that person off from the church. Maybe what is needed is for the church to help them to cut off the things that they carry that cause them to behave in such ways?
      You see, the reality is that your hand isn’t what causes you to sin, neither does your foot or your eye. These things are just the tools that you sometimes use to do bad things. My dream and my hope for the church is that it could be a place where we help people to deal with the things that actually do cause them to hurt others – where we are able to bring the things that we carry around inside us that have hurt us or have made us afraid and help each other to cut them off from our lives. Now, that is not something that is going to happen easily. It is going to have to take some trust and honesty. It is going to take being willing to open up with each other in ways that might even be uncomfortable. It is certainly nothing that is going to happen overnight. But I think that it can happen.
      The communion that we will celebrate in a little while will be open to all. I won’t build any fences around the table. But I hope you don’t come carelessly. We need a community that is mutually supportive, where we deal with the things that may make us sometimes hurt and wound one another if we are not careful, where we are a blessing upon one another. The communion, that mutual sharing, is supposed to be a symbol of that. It is supposed to be that moment where our unity and harmony is on display.
      I hope, as we approach this table, we can all examine ourselves and find that our inner lives are in accord with this outer symbol. I hope that if there is anything that is keeping us from doing that, that with God’s help and the help of our sisters and brothers, we can cut it off.
     

      
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Script Out Passages: The Genocidal Texts of the Bible.

Posted by on Monday, September 28th, 2015 in Minister






Hespeler, 27 September, 2015 © Scott McAndless
1 Samuel 15:1-21, Psalm 137, Colossians 1:15-20
I have been talking about what I call Script Out® passages for a few weeks now – passages from the Bible that we like to ignore or pretend like they aren’t there at all. It is something that we often do because a passage makes us feel uncomfortable. And I’ve been thinking this week, that there is a certain power in discomfort.
      I mean, consider the really extraordinary things that have happened this month because of discomfort. At the beginning of September, the world had been in the throes of a full blown humanitarian disaster for quite some time. As a result of a revolt in the region of Syria and Iraq, driven by an organization called ISIS, and made worse by the anti-insurgency tactics of the Syrian government, there was this huge movement of people who were on the move trying to save their lives, their families and some sense of hope.
      Many reports were filed on this disaster. All kinds of information was freely available. But most of the world barely even noticed until there was a picture. And you all know which picture I mean because I know that you’ve all seen it – a picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the water on the beach of a Turkish resort town.
   
   I didn’t want to show you the picture. I hate to see the picture and I’m sure you do too. And I thought about not showing it but I think I have to because that picture did what no report could have done because it is one thing to talk about the statistics of a human tragedy like what’s happening in Syria. It is quite another thing to put a human face – and especially a child’s face – on that tragedy. And, yes, it makes us mad and it makes us upset, but at least it made us notice.
      The human-caused tragedy unfolding in Syria is not a new thing. It has happened again and again throughout human history and it has usually, like this time, been driven by the hatred or fear of those who are different in one way or another. In particular, racial, tribal and religious differences have played a huge role in the atrocities that have been committed down through the ages. And if we’re going to be people of faith we can’t ignore that, as much as we might like to.
      Now, to say that religion has played a role in such terrible stories is not the same thing as saying that religion is the cause of these things. I am not a person who would blame all of the terrible atrocities that happen in this world on religion. But it would be extremely foolish for us to ignore the role played by religion because, when we ignore it, we practically guarantee that it will just keep happening.
      And, to be painfully clear, as much as we might like to think so, it is not just something that belongs to other religious traditions. It is an intimate part of our own. There are several passages in the Bible where atrocities such as genocide, cultural genocide and mass deportation are not just tolerated but actively endorsed. All of these passages are what I call Script Out® passages – passages that we like to pretend aren’t there. We don’t read them, don’t talk about them, they might as well not exist at all so why not just take a bottle of my trademarked liquid and literally remove them.
     A perfect example of that kind of passage is the story about Saul, the first king of Israel and the Prophet Samuel. The land is threatened by foreign invaders – the Amalekites. But Samuel, speaking for God, doesn’t just tell Saul to fight in defense of the nation. He goes a lot further than that and Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” He is specifically (and in the name of God) ordering Saul to commit what we would call genocide today. It is one thing to kill the combatants in a conflict, it is quite another to target those not fighting including, in that case, women, children, infants! and even the domesticated animals.
gives very specific instructions:
      And not only does God order, through Samuel, this slaughter, but when Saul fails to follow the orders to the letter, he gets chewed out for it and essentially fired from his job as king. (And it is not even as if Saul hesitated to kill the children and infants, he was apparently fine with that. His sin, according to Samuel, is that he doesn’t quite slaughter all of the cattle.)
      So we seem to have a whole-hearted endorsement of the practice of genocide right here in the Bible. And passages like this one have definitely been used to justify terrible acts down through Christian history. Although Nazism in Germany did eventually go far from Christianity in its pursuit of what it called pure Aryan Religion, it also appealed to the cultural genocide described in the biblical Book of Ezra as justification of its policy of racial purity. White South Africans used the Book of Joshua and its account of the genocidal conquest of the Promised Land as justification of its policy of Apartheid. If you had been on the ground during the Bosnian genocide, you would have heard both Orthodox and Catholic Christians (who were killing each other as well as Muslims) appealing to the Bible for what they did.
      For these and many other reasons, I’m sure that many of you would agree that this is a definite Script Outâ passage – that we’d all feel much more comfortable if I just took out my bottle of Script Outâ and removed it completely from my Bible. But I’m not going to do that. And the reason why I’m not going to do that is the same reason why I don’t think we should shy away from the picture of Aylan Kurdi, because there is a real power in those things that make us feel very uncomfortable even about the Bible.
      I’ll tell you what I think happened in that story of Samuel, Saul and the Amalekites. I don’t have any real trouble seeing that Samuel was speaking for God in much that he said. In fact, I think it went something like this:
      Saul, the king, said to Samuel, “Samuel, our land is being overrun by these Amalekites. The people are in danger and are desperate for some help. What should I do, Samuel?”
      And so Samuel went to God with this question: “God, what should the king do about this Amalekite problem?”
      And so God said to Samuel, “The king must call up the tribes. The people must come together and fight. Sometimes, that’s just what you have to do.”
      Samuel didn’t have any problem with those instructions so he just passed them on to Saul who organized his armies. But then, Saul noticed something about the enemy and he came back to the prophet for further instructions.
      “Samuel, I have noticed that these Amalekites have a lot of non-combatants with them. They have women and children and even infants. They also have a lot of cattle and other animals. If God gives us the victory... I mean when God gives us victory, what do we do with the non-combatants?”
      Samuel took the issue to God, and God’s answer must have been something along the lines of this: “Non-combatants? What, are you crazy? You can’t kill them. That would be wrong. Let them escape across the Nile River.”
      And Samuel got that answer, but how clearly did he get it? There may have been something that interfered with his reception, some static on the line as it were. The thing that might have interfered was Samuel’s own prejudice against and hatred of these Amalekites. The message may have been, “Let them escape across the Nile,” but the message Samuel passed on to Saul was, “You should annihilate them!”
      I believe that has often happened throughout history. God’s message of justice, his hatred of violence and oppression, his love of mercy has always been there. The message hasn’t changed but it has sometimes been corrupted by the people receiving and passing on that message – corrupted most often by the messengers’ own fears and prejudices and hatreds.
      And that is reflected even in the pages of Scripture. Yes, we believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God. But that does not mean that they were dictatedby God. Inspiration works like this: people experienced God in various ways and the accounts of what they experienced and what they learned came to be written down in the Bible. But that truth about God was always limited by their own human knowledge and understanding.
      That is why, though the Scriptures are absolutely essential to us as Christians, they are not and cannot be our ultimate authority. God knew that no matter how well-inspired the Bible was, it would always be limited by the humans who transmitted it. So, we believe, God chose to reveal himself in a way that could not be corrupted by human transmission. God revealed himself in a person: in Jesus the Christ. For Christians, the real reason why the Bible (both the Old and the New Testament) has authority is because it bears witness to the one who is our ultimate authority: our Lord Jesus.
      So, while those passages that endorse things like genocide are still there in the Bible, we cannot and must not let them be our guide. If God most fully revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ, then the God that we know through Jesus would never approve of such things.
      And yet, the passages are still there in our Bible. They have not disappeared from our Bibles and, as much as we might like to, I say we cannot use our bottles of Script Out®to remove them. So what possible purpose could they have in our Christian lives? I would say that they are there to make us feel uncomfortable. They are there, right in your Bibles, as a permanent reminder that it is always possible for our hatred and fear and suspicion of a people who are different from us to interfere with the clear message of love and mercy and acceptance that God has given to us in Jesus Christ. These passages remind us that we can do it too. And that might be hard for us to see – as hard as seeing a picture of a three year old boy lying in the surf – but I hope it may at least prompt us to action as that picture has.
      I can think of one key application of this. This spring, Canada completed something truly exceptional: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that looked at the entire Indian Residential School system and the terrible abuse that occurred in and around it. Beverley McLachlin, Chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada stated, on seeing the reports, that there was really no question that Canada had clearly set out to commit cultural genocide with the active support of various churches including our own.
      Now that is kind of harsh. No one wants to be associated with such things, but the evidence was fully examined and quite clear. It is not an issue of personal guilt or blame, mind you. It was nothing that you or I did, and it is not as if we have to feel personally responsible, but we are part of a community (both as Canadians and as Christians) who carry that burden for what was done.
      But it really does seem to me that most Canadians and most Christians haven’t come to terms with that. We just don’t see ourselves as belonging to a community that does such things. Perhaps we need something – maybe a picture or a passage of Scripture – that makes us feel uncomfortable enough to realize that even people like us are capable of doing terrible things if we let our fear or mistrust or hatred of people who are different from us interfere with the message of God that has been given to us in Christ Jesus.

      For me, Bible passages like the story of King Saul and the Amalekite genocide can serve to make us that uncomfortable and that is why I am not going to use my bottle of Script Out®to disappear this passage either. I hope you keep it in your Bible too.
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